Monday, April 5, 2021

UA women’s basketball team had a glorious season, even if they fell short at the buzzer

Posted By on Mon, Apr 5, 2021 at 10:55 AM

One of the greatest movies ever about music (although you can’t really call it a musical) is “The Commitments,” an often-hilarious story of a group of hardscrabble, pasty-faced Irish kids (and one grizzled professional) in Dublin who get together to form a soul-music band. They stumble along, spurred on by Jimmy, their self-appointed manager who can neither sing nor play an instrument but is supremely capable of using his gift of gab to help give the band a fighting chance. Slowly, then all of a sudden, they get good, then better. And just when they are on the threshold of making it big, things go terribly wrong.

As it begins to crumble, the veteran, Joey “The Lips” Fagan, tells Jimmy, “Sure, we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.”

And as anybody who has suffered through an AP Literature course can tell you, poetry mostly stinks.

After working their way through the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Arizona Wildcats women’s team had already made history. (And can we PLEASE stop using the term “Lady” Wildcats? The fans know that they’re women.) Only one Arizona women’s team had ever advanced to the Sweet 16 and that run ended right there. But here was upstart Arizona crashing into the Final Four by surviving a serious scare at the hands of BYU in the round of 32, then smacking No. 2 seed Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.

It was rarified air, an unprecedented run. But, like everything else in the Time of COVID, it had a downside. The Cats missed out on the opportunity to play the first two games at home in McKale Center, where, one hopes, that BYU game wouldn’t have been so nerve-wracking to watch. Then, instead of the usual six or seven days between the Elite Eight game and the Final Four, the COVID-affected schedule gave Arizona (and its fans) only three days to revel in the newness and greatness of it all.

The enthusiasm back here in Tucson was also tempered by the fact that Arizona would be facing mega-monster Connecticut, a team that was appearing in the Final Four for the 13th consecutive year! Not even the legendary UCLA teams of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton can come close to that kind of a streak. The prevailing (albeit unspoken) sentiment around Tucson was along the lines of “Yeah, it so cool that they made it to the Final Four. Let’s hope that UConn doesn’t humiliate them.”

Instead, the Wildcats rose up and shocked the basketball world by coming away with a double-digit win over a Huskie team that was favored by a whopping 15 points. Then it was on to the championship game against fellow Pac-12 team Stanford. The Cardinal had escaped with a one-point win over defending national champion Baylor. Stanford had thumped Arizona twice during the regular season, but no one expected the matchup between the emotionally exhausted Cardinal and the on-a-major-roll Wildcats to be a blowout.

In terms of basketball aesthetics, we were kin’ hoping for a visually pleasing game. What we got was uglier than Bjork’s prom dress.

Arizona forced Stanford to commit 21 turnovers (to only six by the Cats), including a shot-clock violation with six seconds left in the game and the Cardinal clinging to a one-point lead. Arizona had 12 steals to only one by Stanford. All that, coupled with the fact that Arizona shot 18 free throws to only two for Stanford, screams Advantage-Arizona. But the Cats gave it all back by shooting a dismal 29% from the field and 27% from the three-point line.

(I coach high-school girls’ basketball and my slogan has always been, “You might not always play well, but you can always play hard.” That’s what we got from both teams in the championship game.)

Aari McDonald, who had willed the Cats into the championship game with multiple performances that are guaranteed to be the stuff of legend, had a decidedly off day. She scored 22 points, but was only 5-20 from the field. She also missed three big free throws.

But when it came down to Game Time, a chance to win a national championship, it was McDonald who was going to take the final shot. Said Coach Adia Barnes, “It was Aari or nothing. That’s my decision as a coach.”

Even triple-teamed, her shot came close. I had friends who texted me and asked in exasperated tones, “Why did (Barnes) have Aari take that shot?” I told them, “Because Barnes has obviously seen 'Hoosiers.' ” You dance with the one who brung ya.

This was a season to be cherished, a team to be revered, and the start of something that will leave us all awestruck. It was wonderful.

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