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‘We’re playing against Allen Iverson’: UConn will have hands full with Arizona’s Aari McDonald

To advance to the national championship game, the Huskies will need to find a way to slow down Arizona’s electric guard.

Indiana v Arizona Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

UConn women’s basketball has its eye on a 12th trip to the national championship game but standing between the Huskies and the chance to play for another trophy is Arizona’s 5-foot-6 fifth-year senior guard, Aari McDonald. A is a problem on both ends of the court, McDonald is intense, lightening quick, a matchup nightmare, and a pest on defense.

“I think she’s a phenomenal player. She’s a tremendous individual and I don’t know that there’s anything that any one team — or any one player I should say — has been able to do to completely stop her from from doing what she wants to do,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Our staff feels like this is probably the most dominant guard that we will have played against this year. No question.”

That’s high praise, considering the Huskies just matched up with Iowa’s elite freshman Caitlin Clark. Though Clark is already an elite three-level scorer, McDonald is one of, if not the best two-way player in the country.

So much of what McDonald does starts on the defensive end of the floor. The three-time Pac-12 All-Defense selection, two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year and two-time national defensive player of the year finalist (with a strong case to take home the award in 2021) uses her quickness to stick to her defensive assignments like glue. She’s nearly impossible to escape if she’s guarding you.

That defensive pressure from McDonald helps turn Arizona’s opponents over on roughly 22 percent of their possessions, including an average of 2.7 steals per game from McDonald herself. That’s the starting point for her offense as well.

McDonald has scored 147 points in transition this season, per Synergy, which equates to over a quarter of her total points on the year. It’s where she’s the most lethal, scoring 1.065 points per possession. In the half court, the ball more often than not ends up in her hands in the pick and roll.

“You get her in that pick and roll and then she’s sneaky and tricky,” Auriemma said. “She knows every in and outs of how to run that. She’s fearless as an offensive player.”

McDonald isn’t the most efficient shooter in the country, though. On the season, she’s shooting about 41 percent from the floor and has at times hasn’t allowed the game to come to her on the offensive end. Evidence of those struggles has been absent so far in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’ve seen a different Aari in the tournament,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said after their Elite Eight win. “Just more relaxed, more at ease, really leading the team in so many different ways, letting the game come to her. She’s been unstoppable. I mean, no one can guard her.”

That’s largely been true. McDonald shot 57 percent or better in three of four tournament games so far. In the regionals she scored 30-plus points in both games and went a combined 11-18 from deep. She’s been relentless in transition as always but is also finding ways to consistently knock down big shots in the flow of the Wildcats’ half court offense, which has led her team to their success.

In Arizona’s Elite Eight game, McDonald put the team on her back to get the win — not unlike the type of performance Paige Bueckers strung together against South Carolina for UConn earlier this season. McDonald scored 33 points on Monday night, knocked down five of her six attempts from three-point range, tallied four assists, and also notched 11 rebounds.

In Auriemma’s view, that performance was characteristic of McDonald’s game.

“There have been numerous times, more than you can count, where she just carries her team and wills them to win, both with her physical talents and the intangibles that she brings and how hard she plays,” he said.

So how does UConn prepare to guard a player of McDonald’s caliber? Assistant coach Jamelle Elliott, who is doing the scout on McDonald, equated her to “playing against Allen Iverson”, Auriemma relayed.

The Huskies’ defensive game plan will start with Christyn Williams, who has continued to excel as UConn’s best lock down defender in the tournament. Last weekend, she faced her toughest assignment of the season with Clark. Though the Iowa freshman still scored 21 points, it took her 21 field goal attempts to get there thanks to Williams’ defense, which forced her into plenty of bad shots and contested looks. McDonald will be an even tougher task for Williams.

As much as McDonald’s speed makes her elite defender, it also makes her incredibly difficult to guard on the offensive end. UConn’s help defense will also be critical, for when — not if — Williams gets beat on the drive. Should Nika Muhl, who’s status is still unknown, be available, she could play a major role in the Huskies’ plans.

“If we had Nika at 100%, we’re a different basketball team. You don’t replace a defensive minded guard like that,” Auriemma said. “Not that she would be able to guard Aari McDonald, don’t get me wrong, but that would give us another defender that we could switch up and let Aari see a different look.”

Whether or not Muhl will be a part of UConn’s rotation in the Final Four, McDonald is not the type of player that the Huskies can shut down entirely the way Williams did in the Big East Tournament. After all, McDonald has scored in double-figures in 91 straight games at Arizona. Still, how well UConn can contain her will be a critical factor in whether the Huskies will advance to the national championship game.