Aari McDonald was a few weeks removed from leading the Arizona Wildcats to a WNIT championship when she got the news.
Someone in the women’s basketball offices at McKale Center handed her an envelope. Inside was an invitation to try out for USA Basketball in mid-May. The players selected would represent the United States in the Pan American Games.
The understated McDonald’s reaction: “Oh, that is nice.”
She was excited to train with top players in Colorado Springs.
“To be one of the 35 (players) invited is a tremendous honor,” said UA coach Adia Barnes. “I think it’s extremely hard. It’s extremely competitive. You never know what people are looking for. You have to fit a specific need.”
McDonald didn’t make the team, but nonetheless played well.
“She was one of the best guards there,” Barnes said. “I think her experience at Team USA is going to make her better. I believe everything happens for a reason. When we came back, I gave her the rest of the week off, and she was back at it. She’s going to be even more motivated. It’s a blessing in disguise for her.”
McDonald is coming off one of the most dominant seasons in recent history. She averaged 24.1 points per game, the third-highest average in the country; claimed the Arizona single-season scoring record (men’s and women’s) with 890 points; and became one of just two players nationally since 2000 to score 800 points, grab 200 rebounds and dish 150 assists in the same season.
May marked her second time trying out for Team USA — she was one of the last players cut two years ago. McDonald had a sense of what was ahead of her this time out. Players arrived in their hotel rooms to find a Team USA backpack waiting for them. Inside was a T-shirt, a jersey, shorts and a water bottle.
Then came scrimmages, drills and some inspiration.
Minnesota coach Lindsay Whalen, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner, spoke to the players. Her message: It’s not about you. It’s about the team.
“Just represent your school or yourself the best way you can,” McDonald said, recalling the talk. “At the time, she was saying your country, because USA. But that stood out to me. Do what you do best — don’t try to be extra or be something you are not. Just stick to your strengths.”
Players were broken into four teams for pool play, with seven to nine players on each team. McDonald was teamed with Stanford’s Kiana Williams, Oregon State’s Mikayla Pivec, Kansas State’s Peyton Williams, Texas’ Joyner Holmes and Maryland’s Taylor Mikesell.
South Dakota State’s Aaron Johnston coached.
“He was cool; he let us play,” said McDonald. “Other teams had lot of plays. We had simple plays. We got to play and show our strengths.
“We had a pretty good team — even our coach said we played together. You could see that. Everyone was picking each other up. If someone did something good we were encouraging them and telling them to keep going. It was really fun playing with those group of girls.”
Barnes traveled to Colorado to watch McDonald play.
“Seeing Coach Adia sit on the side and watching me was calming,” said McDonald. “She would ask, ‘How are you feeling?’ Or if I had a bad shot, she knows the right words to say to pick me up. Just having her there was good. It shows how much she supports her players.”
McDonald’s teammates were excited for her opportunity, too. And when she didn’t make Team USA, they had her back. They told McDonald exactly what she needed to hear: that she’s great and they know what she can do.
McDonald is back to being focused on what’s next for the Wildcats.
“It’s a little frustrating (not making Team USA). But honestly I just took pluses from the past experiences I’ve had. Me not making the team added fuel to the fire for next year,” she said. “Any of my opponents next year — conference or nonconference — will definitely feel my wrath.
“It’s back to the drawing board. Back to grinding. Work on all the things I need to work on for next season. It’s motivation.”
- More than 80 girls attended Barnes’ camps this week. One of the coaches this week is former UA player Destiny Graham. She stayed in Tucson while applying for graduate assistant jobs over the country. Graham was scheduled to attend the “So You Want To Be A Coach” program at this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats were still playing in the WNIT, however, and so she missed it.
“It was unfortunate because I could have networked, and my path to finding a graduate assistant job would have been a little bit easier,” she said.
- Barnes gave her players two weeks off following the WNIT and another four weeks off this summer.
“I believe it’s big to have a mental and physical break. Even if you take a week off and shut your brain off basketball, it’s healthy,” Barnes said. “They have stuff they are supposed to be doing via their cell phone. They have an app they can log in for strength and conditioning and for weights, so they can track it that way. I think most of them will get in the gym, but they need a break first.
“We played a really long season, but if we’re talking about the next step in this program is to make the NCAAs and get better, there’s a different sense of work, and you get better in the offseason. We talked a lot about that.”
Lucia Alonso is staying in Tucson while the rest of her teammates head home.
- Most of the Wildcats’ incoming freshmen won’t arrive in Tucson until the end of the summer as they are playing for their countries’ national teams.
“So the difference is, where we usually get ahead in the summer, we won’t be this summer,” said Barnes. “Our players will continue to get better and stronger here. But the new players won’t learn our system in the summer. So that is going to put us behind a little bit. But that’s the good reality of what we have. The positive part is that they are all playing for national teams — playing high-level competition, getting better.”
- Arizona’s WNIT championship trophy is now housed on a table inside Barnes’ office — along with a smaller, transparent replica.