Aari McDonald: Worth the wait
Aari McDonald (2) looks to dunk the ball during the Arizona-Stanford game on January 13, 2018 at the McKale Center.
Waiting for your moment is one of the hardest things a person has to do in life. In a world where everything seems to be going 100 mph, staying idle can seem like the wrong move. Not knowing the outcome, staying the course and believing in yourself are all remedies to overcome stagnation or pauses in our life.
For Arizona women’s basketball guard Aari McDonald, sitting out a year and waiting to play again might as well have felt like an eternity. The sophomore guard transferred to Arizona after spending her freshman year at Washington, where she collected Pac-12 All-Freshman honors. For a player that only knows how to be in fourth gear, being in park was an opponent all in its own.
Now that McDonald is allowed to play for Arizona, she has hit the road running. Averaging just over 27 points a night for head coach Adia Barnes, McDonald has emerged as one of the most lethal offensive players in the country in just the few months she has officially been plying her trade in McKale Center.
Her burst onto the scene was almost as quick as her burst off the dribble. The three-time Pac-12 player of the week is coming off a 36-point performance against No.24 Cal, helping notch Arizona’s second win over top-25 opponents this season. The Wildcats sit at 13-3 on the season, miles from the 6-24 record that the Wildcats registered just last season while McDonald was in street clothes.
Many in Tucson have been pleasantly surprised. What’s better than having one good basketball program? Having two good basketball programs, and McDonald has been the fearless and unapologetic leader that has helped the Old Pueblo rediscover it’s love for Arizona’s women’s team. As evidenced by the 5,000 fans who showed up for Arizona’s win over then-ranked No.17 ASU. McDonald finished with 24 points, almost half of her teams 51, showing the Wildcat fans in attendance that the best Arizona basketball player plays on Barnes’ squad.
“I definitely think that what we are doing for the program is definitely attracting players coming up,” McDonald said. “I know our program hasn’t been here in years, being talked like this so it definitely feels good and lets people know that we are headed in the right direction.”
“If you watch Aari, she is called upon to score, but she’s not a score-first point guard,” coach Adia Barnes said. “She is a pass-first. That’s just how she is. If you watched her at Washington. If you watched her when she was in high school. But here we need her to score.”
McDonald isn't just a one-dimensional player. Her ability to guard opposing point guards the length of the court has been the spearhead of the stingy Arizona defense.
"I'm in the back line with either Kate or Destiny or Semaj," said Purdue-transfer Dominique McBryde after Arizona's 71-47 win in McKale. 'So watching Aari getting into them on the front line, getting steals, getting cookies is really fun to watch."
McDonald was just named to the Wooden National Player of the Year watchlist, and you won’t find the patient sophomore surprised. No matter how many people in Tucson might be.
When asked if she was surprised in a recent press conference, McDonald didn’t mince words.
“No,” the dynamic point guard said. “Not trying to be cocky, but no, it doesn’t surprise me at all.. I worked my butt off last year and in the offseason, and in the summer so.. it feels good to see the results showing and paying off.”
And the results are there for all to see. Arizona finishes the weekend with a legitimate shot at clinching a NCAA tournament bid. A year ago, McDonald could only watch, as her teammates struggled and toiled in front of dismal crowds – an afterthought compared to the mighty and popular Arizona men’s basketball team. Now they have centerstage and McDonald is the conductor, making everything tick and flow while doing so flamboyantly.
For the sophomore, the early success is especially encouraging due to the nature of women’s basketball, where players stay all four years unlike their male counterparts. Tucsonans get to watch McDonald dictate play in McKale for two more seasons after this one. And if things continue to go the way they have been, Arizona fans are going to be singing her name long after she scores her last basket as a Wildcat, as her name will more than likely join her head coaches name in Arizona’s Ring of Honor along the rafters in McKale after her playing days are over.
The year-long wait that McDonald has had a seemingly happy ending, that could turn into fairytale. As the Fresno native continues to fill up box scores and inspire her teammates, she is changing the image of the program she plays for one game at a time. And for Arizona fans, the wait was more than worth it.
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