Thursday, May 6, 2021

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The Confidence, Speed and Shooting of Aari McDonald

McDonald has carried No. 3 seed Arizona to the N.C.A.A. tournament final against top-seeded Stanford, beating UConn in the semifinal. “The world is finally noticing what I can do,” she said.

Aari McDonald has always had an eye for the ball.

Her mother, Andrea McDonald, who played basketball in high school, first noticed it during family pickup games in Aari’s grandparents’ driveway. When Aari, the youngest of six children, was a few months old, Andrea would set her up in a baby bouncer while she played.

“Wherever that orange ball was, that’s where she was looking,” Andrea said, laughing. “If you didn’t have the ball, you were of no importance to her.”

Connecticut felt the brunt of that focus when McDonald led No. 3 seeded Arizona over the storied Huskies on Friday night and to the Wildcats’ first Final Four. McDonald’s 26-point performance — her 92nd consecutive game with double-digit scoring, the longest active streak in women’s college basketball — showcased the quickness and the relentless energy that, along with her earned confidence that she can put the ball into the basket pretty much at will, have become impossible to ignore.

“I’m just happy that the world is finally noticing what I can do,” McDonald said in an interview. “I’m a two-way player, and it’s not a one-man show.”

The 5-foot-6 guard grew up in Fresno, Calif., where from a young age she followed in her parents’ and siblings’ footsteps by getting into sports. She is named Aarion, after her father, Aaron McDonald, who played football in college. Her brother Tre’Von Willis played basketball at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her mother, to Aari’s chagrin, boasts about her own high school basketball highlights with some of the same unflappable confidence as her daughter.

“She used to say her jumper was butter, and that she’d mastered shooting off the backboard,” McDonald said, with a nearly audible eye roll. “I’m like, ‘Mom, come on now.’”

Her mother was her first coach, bringing the then-7-year-old Aari onboard with her Amateur Athletic Union team for children 10 and under. She was the youngest player on the court, but the energetic play that has become her trademark was already obvious, if slightly misdirected.

“I was just literally everywhere,” said McDonald, who fouled a lot. She added, “I would foul out, and my mom would be like, ‘Aarion, what are you doing?’”

Her mother remembers things differently. Aari’s older teammates were reluctant on the court, she said, requiring coaxing to move around and shoot, while Aari was already making improbable shots. “She kept us in those games,” Andrea said. “I had to take a double look, like, ‘Is she really making these baskets?’”

“She was like a little gnat,” her father recalled of those early games. “You just couldn’t get her off of you.”

By sixth grade, McDonald was playing on a boys’ A.A.U. team. She also played volleyball and ran track, but basketball quickly became her top priority. She started getting attention in the local news media when she became her high school’s leading scorer by a large margin as a freshman, and garnered even more when she started getting triple-doubles and even, once, a quadruple-double.

As her abilities grew, she didn’t. McDonald insists that her height never threatened her basketball ambitions and credits her mother for her confidence in spite of being perpetually underestimated.

“Every game, throughout my whole career, my mom has always told me to be a feisty competitor and leave everything out on the floor,” McDonald said. “Me being small, I had to do things that other players didn’t want to do, whether that was diving on the floor for loose balls or taking charges.”

Plus, she believes she has other gifts that have fueled her career. “You can’t teach speed,” McDonald said. “You can’t teach heart.”

Because she wanted to stay on the West Coast, McDonald began her college career at the University of Washington, where Adia Barnes, who is now Arizona’s coach, was an assistant. But McDonald wasn’t content, far from her family and her ailing grandfather — and playing behind the N.C.A.A.’s career leading scorer, Kelsey Plum. When Barnes, who had recruited McDonald, took the Arizona job, the decision to follow her was a fairly easy one.

“This is what we talked about,” McDonald said of the conversations that had led to her transfer. “It’s all coming full circle.”

The transfer, however, meant that McDonald had to sit out a year. A year of playing on the scout team, able to show all of her teammates — but not outsiders who had overlooked her — what she could do. Arizona forward Sam Thomas was a freshman during McDonald’s first season at Arizona, and when she first met McDonald, she was struck by how quiet she was. “She didn’t say anything at all,” Thomas said.

On the court, it was a different story. Barnes would tell her team to defend McDonald in practice. It proved nearly impossible.

“We’re trying to work on our defense, and Aari’s just scoring and scoring,” Thomas said. “We were like, ‘How are we supposed to work on our defense when we can’t stop her?’”

That season, Arizona went 6-24. The next season, McDonald’s first competing for the Wildcats, they won 24 games and the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. She scored 890 points that season, breaking the program’s single-season scoring record set by her coach, Barnes. That energy, which McDonald says is the product of the conditioning that she prioritizes above almost everything else, became infectious.

“She’s always on 10,” Thomas said. “She never, ever, ever gets tired in a game — which is crazy, because I get tired just looking at her.”

In McDonald’s three years playing for Arizona, she has set numerous records and received as many accolades, most recently being named the Pac-12 player of the year and sharing the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award. That the Wildcats have managed so many tough wins in the tournament is, her teammates say, a testament to McDonald’s impact.

“She’s always been able to score 30 points a game, but I just think now she’s just been growing so much as a leader,” Thomas said. “She’s getting more confident. She’s bringing the team with her.”

In a few weeks, she will most likely have a new team, as her W.N.B.A. draft stock keeps rising with each surprise victory.

Before she goes pro, though, McDonald will face one more huge test in the Wildcats’ title game against top-seeded Stanford. She’ll get ready the same way as usual: by listening to some Dom Kennedy and Meek Mill and eating a lot of bananas. The rest is just what McDonald referred to over and over again as a “strong mind-set,” asserting herself every second of the game.

“My goal is to make it harder for you,” McDonald said. “I want to create havoc.”

If the shots fall, that helps. But either way, McDonald doesn’t plan on letting Stanford out of her sight.

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