By Scott Mammoser
Aari McDonald of the University of Arizona is one of the biggest surprises in college basketball this season. She is one of four sophomores on the Wooden Award midseason watch list, a group of 25, and she has rejuvenated the Wildcats’ program.
Through the weekend, the 5-foot-7 McDonald was leading Megan Gustafson of Iowa and Cierra Dillard of Buffalo by two tenths of a point at 26.1 for Division I’s leading scorer.
The Wildcats are coming off a 6-24 season and 2-16 in the Pac-12. However, the team went on an 11-game winning streak, blowing through the non-conference schedule, to open the year. Its lone loss was by two points to Loyola Marymount, a game in which McDonald scored her personal best of 39 points.
Skeptics thought the Wildcats would cool off once the Pac-12 season began, but Arizona clamped down on Arizona State, 51-39, and McDonald was 5-of-8 from downtown with 36 points in a 60-55 win over California, another ranked team, as she completed a string of three-30-point games in nine days.
“It makes all the hard work we’ve done all season pay off,” McDonald said. “Where my team was from start to now, everything in practice translates to the court. It’s a big improvement. Over the summer, there had been a huge change. They’re really good people on and off the court, and I’m excited to be around them.”
McDonald came to Tucson from the University of Washington, where she spent one season, 2016-17, and was named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team, scoring just less than 10 points per game, as the team advanced to the Sweet 16. The Huskies were coming off a Final Four run, and Kelsey Plum broke the NCAA’s career scoring record during McDonald’s freshman year.
“It was fun and exciting to be there for her historic senior year,” McDonald said of Plum. “She took me under her wing, and it showed me that if you put in a lot of work, then the results show.”
McDonald, who is from Fresno, Calif., said she chose Arizona because it had a supportive family atmosphere and she liked the coaching staff. Head coach Adia Barnes was a Washington assistant from 2011 to 2016.
“Having her on the bench last year, I knew we were going to get better,” Barnes said. “I was optimistic. We are still missing a lot of pieces. We have dominant guards, but we don’t have dominant post play on the blocks. We’re missing some aggressive shooters, and we don’t have the size or depth. We got better, but still need to get better.”
Following McDonald, the drop off to Arizona’s next-leading scorer is 15 points to Cate Reese at 11.8 per game, plus three more to San Thomas’ 8.8.
“We need to find a way to get two or three more people to score,” Barnes said, “just finding that other option consistently. This is a tough league, and we just need to find other players to step up.”
McDonald listed getting to the rim, getting back on defense, rebounding, getting teammates involved and locking down on players as her strong points.
“I can be more vocal, and my shot needs to be more consistent,” McDonald said as her goals for improvement. “The Pac-12 is tall, so I need to alter my shot more around the basket.”
McDonald leading the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005 and first postseason appearance since 2011 is becoming closer to a reality.
“We want to be in the top six of the Pac-12 and make it to the tournament this year,” she added. “I’ve been there before, so we need to play our game with tenacious defense, and hopefully, we’ll get there.”
(Follow Scott on Twitter: @SMammoser)