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UConn women’s basketball assistant coach Jamelle Elliott is handling the scout team ahead of Friday’s Final Four game against No. 3 Arizona. Head coach Geno Auriemma asked her how the top-seeded Huskies can slow down Arizona’s dynamic two-way senior guard Aari McDonald.
“I don’t know Coach,” Elliott told Auriemma. “We’re playing against Allen Iverson.”
Auriemma replied: “So I said ‘Okay, I’m going to have to call some of my old coaching buddies in the old Big East and go, ‘How do you prepare for Allen Iverson?’”
McDonald, the Pac-12 1/4 u2032s player of the year, might be that good.
A two-time conference defensive player of the year, the 5-foot-6 guard is the top scorer remaining in the NCAA Tournament at 20.3 points per game on 41% shooting. Since transferring to Tucson ahead of the 2017-18 season, McDonald has averaged 21.7 points per game.
“She really, really knows, you get her in that pick and roll, and then she’s just sneaky and tricky and talented, she knows every ins and outs of how to run that,” Auriemma said. “She’s fearless as an offensive player. She’s a first-team All-American defensive player.”
She began her career at Washington (then coached by Mike Neighbors), and was a freshman on the 2016-17 team that Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor led to the Sweet 16 a year after the program’s first trip to the Final Four. McDonald watched as the likes of Plum and Osahor — both future WNBA first-round draft picks — made the Huskies nationally relevant.
McDonald was recruited to Washington by Adia Barnes, who left the Pacific Northwest in 2016 to take the head coaching job at Arizona. McDonald followed her a year later.
Now with the Wildcats (20-5), McDonald is doing what Plum and Osahor once did. She’s helped make Arizona, a team that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2005, relevant again.
Arizona beat No. 5 Indiana in Monday’s Elite Eight game to advance to the Final Four the first time in program history. McDonald scored 33 points. Now the Huskies, who have made 21 Final Four appearances, stand between McDonald and a chance to play for the national championship.
“Even if my mom was in the way, I’ve got to knock her over to try and get to that,” McDonald said Wednesday. “We’re really excited to face UConn. They’re a talented team, well coached. We’re up for the challenge. We’re just going to go out there and play solid for 40 minutes.”
McDonald sat out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer rules. The Wildcats went 6-24 that year. But when Barnes looked down the bench as her team struggled, she saw McDonald, who was a member of the Pac 12 all-freshman team the year prior with Washington.
Help was on the way. And when it arrived, it arrived with a bang. McDonald averaged 24.1 points per game as a redshirt sophomore as the Wildcats won 24 games and the WNIT Tournament. McDonald averaged 20.6 points the next season, won her first conference defensive player of the year award, and Arizona went 24-7 before losing to No. 3 Oregon in the conference tournament.
“She’s one of the few players that has completely helped to transform Arizona,” Barnes, an Arizona alum, told The Courant earlier this month. “She has really taken us on our back. When I got the job, we had a 300 in RPI. No one really talked about Arizona. And with her here and growing with the program and then getting some of the pieces, she’s just helped us really get to the next level.”
Barnes said she had expected a “different” McDonald in the NCAA Tournament. She scored a season-high 31 points against No. 2 Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, and then topped that with 33 points against No. 4 Indiana on Monday.
Auriemma said that the coaching staff believes McDonald is “probably the most dominant guard we will have played against this year.” That’s saying something considering the Huskies faced Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark (the nation’s leading scorer) on Saturday, and Baylor’s DiDi Richards (the 2020 Naismith defensive player of the year) on Monday.
But while Clark is electrifying on offense and Richards is a stalwart on defense, neither quite combine the two sides like McDonald, who leads the Pac-12 in scoring, steals (67), and is 17th nationally in defensive win shares (3.1), per HerHoopStats.
McDonald will likely draw UConn freshman Paige Bueckers — the AP National Player of the Year — on defense Friday. McDonald likes what she’s seen, and raved about how crafty Bueckers is, how well she scores at all three levels, how efficient she is and how she moves without the ball.
With all that being said ...
“I’m going to make it hard for her to score,” McDonald said. “I’m very excited to guard her.”
Count Barnes in as someone who’s excited for that match up, too.
“It’s a senior against a freshman, I think Paige is a phenomenal player,” Barnes said. “I’ve watched her all through AAU. She’s so good. She’s going to be the next Diana Taurasi — or even different, she’ll write her own story. But she reminds me of her swag, her confidence and composure. I think it’s a great match up. They’re different athletes, they’re different styles, they’re both really, really good.
“I’m excited for this match up. I think Aari’s excited, I think Paige is excited. I think it’s good for women’s basketball.”
Shawn McFarland can be reached at email@example.com.