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From a 6-win season to the Sweet 16, Aari McDonald has led Arizona to the top of the Pac-12

Colby Gordon
American-Statesman Correspondent
Arizona guard Aari McDonald looks to shoot over BYU center Sara Hamson during the Wildcats' 52-46 win Wednesday. She had a game-high 17 points in the victory.

SAN ANTONIO — As she sprinted down the court in the game’s final seconds, the smile on Aari McDonald’s face said it all.

She had just made a steal that sealed Arizona’s 52-46 win over BYU to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1998, and McDonald’s grin grew wider with each step Wednesday at the UT-San Antonio Convocation Center. These moments are why she’s still playing for the Wildcats.

“This one was special,” she said. “I came back because I wanted to do something special with my teammates in the tournament. We had that chance taken away last year, and that made us hungry coming in.”

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McDonald has accomplished about all you can on a basketball court for Arizona.

She’s the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year and a multiple All-America selection, and she's still in the running for National Player of the Year.

But a run in the NCAA Tournament has eluded her during her time with the Wildcats. Robbed of a chance a year ago by the coronavirus, McDonald bypassed a shot to turn pro and returned to dominate the college scene and take a shot at March Madness.

Wednesday wasn’t McDonald’s best game — not even close — but as great players do, she played well when it mattered most. She scored nine of her game-high 17 points in the fourth quarter and had two steals, helping the Wildcats overcome a four-point deficit and end the game on a 13-3 run to advance to Sunday’s matchup against Texas A&M.

“I didn’t want the season to end and didn’t want to go home, so I had to put the team on my back,” said McDonald, who finished with a double-double after grabbing 11 rebounds. “I’m proud of this team. If we trailed in the fourth quarter the last couple of years, we would have been rattled.”

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McDonald isn’t a stranger to the NCAA Tournament. She helped Washington to the Sweet 16 in 2017 but hasn’t been back since. After sitting out a year as a transfer, she helped turn the Wildcats into a national power, as they finished second in the Pac-12 and earned a No. 3 seed. She’s probably the best player in Arizona history — and it might not even be close.

“She came back this year on a mission, and she came to Arizona originally to do something special, and she’s done that,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes, who played on the Wildcats' 1998 team. “Star players show up in big moments, and that’s what she does.”

In the on-court celebration after the game, McDonald joined her teammates and the roughly 60 or so Wildcat fans in attendance for an enthusiastic school chant.

It was another moment for her to soak in and enjoy knowing what she’s helped build in Tucson.

“She sat out and watched us win six games three years ago,” Barnes said. “No one thought we’d do what we’ve done. But we believe in ourselves and our ability to go far and win a lot of games, and that’s all that matters. Aari was one of the players that came here and helped lay a foundation, and it’s really rewarding to stand there and celebrate with her.”