Before the 2020-21 season, Arizona had been to the Sweet 16 exactly once in the history of its women’s basketball program, and when it got there in 1998 it lost to Connecticut. Since then, it has won a total of three NCAA Tournament games and hasn’t been to the event since 2005.
However, the Wildcats are reaching new heights with their current coach, they’re two years removed from a WNIT title and had one of their best seasons in school history stopped at the brink of the tournament by the COVID-19 pandemic last season. They are enjoying their first Elite Eight appearance during a season when the Arizona men’s program, which has a national title, four Final Fours, 11 Elite Eights and 19 Sweet 16 appearances to its credit, missed the NCAA Tournament.
Sound a little like another team you know?
“Coming to Arizona, it was a men’s powerhouse,” senior guard Aari McDonald said on a press conference Sunday. “I’m glad that we’re turning the attention to the women’s side now. Hey, we’ve been doing this for years. I think people are just starting to get on the train. It’s very exciting to create history. We couldn’t have done this without one another. We trusted each other. We trusted the coaching staff, and look what’s happening now.”
The No. 3 seed Wildcats are the team No. 4 seed Indiana will face Monday at 9 p.m. in the NCAA Tournament Mercado Regional Final in San Antonio in a game between two teams who have never gotten this far. Each of the other three regions went into Sunday’s Sweet 16 action with at least one team remaining with a national title to its credit. The winner of the Mercado Regional will be two rounds further than it has ever been before.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes, who has been in her position since 2016 but is one of the youngest coaches in Division I at age 44. “I think there’s a lot more parity in women’s basketball. I think it proves right now that there is. There’s two teams, us and Indiana, who have never been to the Elite Eight. We’re there, so we’re both making history at our schools. We’ve both done a good job at changing a program. I think years ago, you would know who was going to go. Your bracket wasn’t going to mess up. Now everybody’s brackets are all messed up, and that’s awesome.”
The Hoosiers hadn’t even been to the Sweet 16 since 1983, and only needed one win to get there because it was a 36-team tournament. They have already won as many NCAA Tournament games in this year’s event as they had combined in every other appearance they made in school history up until this season.
The Hoosiers are 21-5 and coming off the most important win in school history, a 73-70 upset of No. 1 seed North Carolina State on Saturday night. They are actually favored against the Wildcats in Monday’s game (9 p.m. ET / ESPN), even though they’re the slightly higher seed, but in Arizona they’re facing a challenge that is a unique one.
Indiana ranks 58th nationally in field goal percentage defense and 59th in scoring defense, ranking in the top two in the Big Ten in both categories. The Hoosiers held their first two opponents in the tournament to just 80 points combined and though they gave up 70 on Saturday night to the Wolfpack, they caused 17 turnovers and scored 20 points off of those.
However, in this game they’ll have to face a second-team All-American in McDonald, who leads the Pac-12 in scoring this season with 19.3 points per game. The senior guard was also a second-team All-American last season and was named Pac-12 Player of the Year this year and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year each of the last two seasons.
McDonald was the only Arizona player in double figures in Saturday night’s win over Texas A&M, but she scored 31 points, hitting six 3-pointers.
“Aari McDonald is fantastic,” IU coach Teri Moren said. “Can score on all three levels, probably the fastest, quickest kid we’ll face all year up until this point. When you have a kid like that on your roster that can score the way she scores, it’s really important that you can’t allow their supporting cast to have big nights. We’ll do our job. I’m not saying she’s not going to score. She’s too good not to score. But we’ll have a sound game plan for her, but I think the key will be not allowing some of those other kids to have big nights in addition to Aari McDonald. She’s going to get her points.”
They have to hope, though, that she doesn’t also get her steals. She leads the Pac-12 with 2.8 steals per game, and senior forward Sam Thomas is right behind her with at second in the league with 2.3 per game. The Wildcats force 18.25 turnovers per game to rank in the top 60 nationally and rank first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing just 55.1 points per game.
“That’s the first thing that sticks out is what they want to do,” Moren said. “… They really have to hang their hat on the defensive end. They’re super aggressive. Our ball security, taking care of it, not having turnovers, which we’ve been doing, is going to be be paramount.”
And if both teams defend as well as the statistics suggest they should, their hopes at a Final Four run could come down to the final moments.
“You have two teams that play stingy defense,” Moren said. “… You have two teams here who have never been here. I think it’s good, sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know.”
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