Adversity, Aari McDonald’s future and more: Takeaways from Arizona’s senior weekend

With WNBA questions in the air, Arizona’s Aari McDonald takes part in Senior Day.

The weekend was a decidedly mixed bag for the Arizona Wildcats. The joy of the program’s first victory over a Top 5 program was turned into the despair of losing to the league’s last-place team. The Wildcats completed the first with an overtime victory over No. 4 Stanford on Friday night. The second came on Sunday when they inexplicably fell to last-place California.

What will the effect be on the team’s hopes for hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament? That question has yet to be answered, and it’s not the only one hanging over the Wildcats.

Senior Day confusion

Academically, Arizona’s Aari McDonald is a senior. For her, that’s important.

The redshirt junior took part in the Wildcats’ senior day ceremony on Sunday although her coach has stated that no decision has been made regarding the WNBA draft in April.

McDonald is listed as a borderline first-round pick in most mock drafts, but her decision “won’t be made for a while,” according to her coach. The decision to take part in senior day has been made for a while, though.

“She’s always planned on doing that,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “It wasn’t something that just came up. Because she’s graduating, so she wants to walk with her classmates. So everybody walking is a graduate. Just like Tee Tee (Starks) last year. Tee Tee walked and came back.”

Starks initially decided to leave after her redshirt junior season due to recurring injuries. She later changed her mind and announced after the WNIT championship run that she would return for her senior season, making her experience different from McDonald’s. Starks has missed her entire senior season due to injury.

Arizona can beat anyone, but they can also struggle with anyone

Friday night showed everything the Wildcats are at their best. Sunday afternoon showed what they can be at their worst.

Arizona wanted the game against Stanford. The emotions were intense for senior Dominique McBryde after the win on Friday. They were just as intense after Saturday’s loss.

When she fouled out of the game with 16 seconds to go, McBryde stood near halfcourt staring into space with a look of rage on her face. She was not in the game to help box out when the Golden Bears’ CJ West missed a final free throw and Jaelyn Brown put it in for the eventual game-winner.

“I think we just came out thinking that we can just beat them,” McBryde said, “knowing that they were one of the last teams in the conference. We just can’t do that. We’ve got to play like we played against Stanford. We’ve got to play like we did against Oregon State. Play as if we’re playing another top-five team in the conference. This is the Conference of Champions and we just can’t have that.”

The only other bad loss on Arizona’s resume came on their last road trip. They dropped a 12-point game to the Colorado Buffaloes.

There were reasons for that. McDonald did not play. Although it had not been mentioned, she had been nursing an injury for a while. Her coach sat her for the trip to Utah and Colorado.

Arizona’s second-leading scorer, sophomore Cate Reese, had her own health scare. The finalist for the Katrina McClain Award has Type I diabetes. She spent the nights before both games in the emergency room due to concerning blood sugar levels.

Then, the travel between two states and the increased elevation to face a team that had been knocking on the door against the top of the conference all season. None of that was true on Sunday.

“This is a very bad loss, our worst loss of the season,” Barnes said. “It was different in Colorado because we weren’t full strength. It’s still bad at Colorado, but we’re at home on our senior day. There is no excuse. You have motivation just because you’re playing for your five seniors. You are diving on floors, you’re winning every 50-50 ball because you’re playing for your seniors, and the seniors are doing that too. And we did not do that as a team.”

Did Arizona players understand the harm that could come from dropping Sunday’s game?

Even before the games, Barnes was worried that the players didn’t understand the implications of not going hard for both games. Is that something that they need to understand? Sunday’s play is certainly an argument that they do.

“They know this Friday, we’re basically playing for third spot (in the Pac-12 Tournament),” she said on Wednesday. “But I don’t think they understand… Sunday could really hurt you. I don’t think that’s understood. I think it’s like, ‘Oh, we just want to win these two games.’ And we don’t talk ahead. We talk when we talk about one game at a time. But I don’t think the kids understand the big picture ever.”

What’s the plan for late-game situations?

Arizona had the opportunity to win both games in regulation. On both occasions, they waited late into the play clock to start their final possession and didn’t get the best shot.

Against Stanford, McDonald allowed the clock to wind all the way to five seconds before attempting her shot. It was off.

The eventual win in overtime erased some of the questions. It didn’t erase the underlying problem.

“The only shot I didn’t like–I don’t mind Aari taking an open shot at the end–but we needed to get to the rim,” Barnes said after the Stanford game. “Because at that time, the end of regulation, it is an open shot, but you have a chance going to the rim, no one can stop her going to the rim. You may get blocked but you have a chance to get the foul. And so that’s the part of learning and becoming a top team in the country, you’re able to execute and know when to do that. And so that was probably the only adjustment, but then I’m not going to be mad at a wide-open jumper.”

That learning still needs to take place, which may be one of the biggest arguments for McDonald to come back to school next season.

Two nights later, she went a little earlier in the clock, but it still seemed late and disjointed. Even worse, it was not a “wide-open jumper.”

With seven ticks left, McDonald dribbled to her left around the perimeter. She didn’t drive to the rim despite the fact that the officials were blowing whistles liberally most of the night. She heaved a long-distance, off-balance 3 that had no chance of going in. Sam Thomas tried to tip it back in, but she had to do so from her own off-balance position.

Can Arizona address the problems before they open in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament on Friday?

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