This Is For Them

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We found out at practice. 

Do y’all remember that time at the beginning of the pandemic when you just had a bad feeling in your stomach all the time? Just like ... a feeling of dread? 

That’s how it was that day.

Usually, we’re in the gym right away, getting shots up, laughing, cracking jokes. But that day, we were still in the locker room — on our phones, watching the news. I was in my head like, Are we really going to have practice?

When the coaches arrived, everybody had long faces. I already knew right then. One of the administrators came over to talk to us, and then she broke down crying. And that just started us with the tears. 

They hugged all of us and said how we’d been such a joy to watch and to coach. They talked about how much better we’d gotten. How ready we were for what was next. I mean, I can’t even lie, we really were on a once-in-a-lifetime run. We were out there just playing for each other, every game. And I think, as we were all hugging, it was slowly dawning on us that on whatever far-off date we’d be getting back together, we were going to be a different team.

We had so much momentum going into last March. Then to all of a sudden find out we weren’t going to even have a tournament?? That was tough. That was a really emotional day for us.

When the coaches arrived, everybody had long faces. I already knew right then.

Aari McDonald

And it gave me a lot to think about on a personal level. 

I mean, I’ll be honest: I had my heart set on declaring for the draft last year and going to the league. And I was ready. I wanted to hear my name called. That was my dream.

But my mind kept going back to one thing…. 

Our seniors. 

They were all getting ready to start these new life journeys, and we couldn’t even give them a proper send-off. We couldn’t even get together and do that. And those ladies were as much a part of our incredible season as anyone. They deserved to see this team make history.

When I thought about our seniors, something didn’t feel right about me leaving school early. I really took that to heart. I wanted to come back and achieve more. I wanted to take this program somewhere it’s never been. That’s what I came here to do.

Aari McDonald | Arizona Wildcats
Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

I knew the job wasn’t done.

So, this is for them. 

This is for our seniors who never got to see an NCAA tournament.

I transferred to the University of Arizona as a sophomore in 2017–18. That was a building year for us. 

We had a young team, we were in a really good conference ... and we went 6–24.

I had to sit out that year as a new transfer, and that was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. But I kept my head down and learned the system. I worked on my jumper and reading the pick-and-roll. I worked on my balance a lot with Coach Salvo. 

That was the biggest positive that came out of me sitting out — I had all that time to fine-tune my game. And I made a promise to myself and to my teammates that we were going to turn that program around fast. 

We said we weren’t going out like that again. Six wins was the floor now — we were getting more than that from then on. And we were going to set a higher ceiling than this program’s ever seen.

That was the biggest positive that came out of me sitting out — I had all that time to fine-tune my game.

Aari McDonald

I came back to U of A for the 2018–19 season with something to prove.

And that wasn’t just my breakout year. That was OUR breakout year. 

I’ll never forget that NIT run. I’ve never seen a team come together like that. Not on any team I’d ever played on.

Actually…..

Let me tell you a little bit about our family.

I have to keep it real with y’all — we have some real characters on our team, Oh, Lord

We have Sam, the funny, sarcastic one. We have Cate Reese, who always has some goofy random fact to share. We’re like, “Cate, dude, where did you even learn that??” Shaina? She is always in her own world, carefree. And you got Bendu, the chill one. Semaj is the sassy one. And Helena, the dancer. Marta’s definitely the girly-girl. She keeps the nail polish poppin’ and stuff like that. And I kid you not, Tara and Mara are two of the most laid-back people I’ve ever met. 

Then you have me — I bring the sauce. Nah, I’m playing. I dance, I’m funny at times. (At least I think so!!)

It’s just different when you’re on an amazing run with people that you actually vibe with and really care about. 

People probably look at us and think, They’ve got such great team chemistry. But it’s more than that. Those are my homegirls, forreal.

Aari McDonald | Arizona Wildcats
Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

I mean, don’t get it twisted — we’re not just out here making TikToks. (We do have some good ones though, not gonna lie!!)

But most important, we come to WIN.

Every single day at practice, we’re competing. We’re really pushing each other.

Our coaches always preach that we have to worry about ourselves and work on getting 1% better each day. And I think that we’ve really taken that to heart. 

Scratch that. I know we’ve taken it to heart.

We started this season with some goals taped up to our locker room door. 

Every year before we start the season, we sit down with our coaches as a team and come up with goals that we want to achieve that year. It’s just a way to stay focused and stay hyped. Seeing those every day right before practice makes us want to go hard. 

To be honest, in my first year, I don’t think we as young players really knew how to set good goals. We were so young, and really focused on getting to the NCAA tournament. I mean, how is that not everyone’s goal every single year?

But the next year, our culture changed. We got some really competitive people within the program. We got better at setting attainable goals and started chipping away at them, bit by bit.

In my first year, I don’t think we as young players really knew how to set good goals.

Aari McDonald

I walked out the locker room the other day and looked up to remind myself of what was on that door.

And I saw the best thing:

WIN THE PAC-12 TITLE

Why is that the best thing?? 

Because that’s what door we’re knocking on now.

It’s crazy, to think about how close we came to that title this season, compared to my first year with this program. Crazy.

We’ve built a program here that’s now competing like hell for conference titles — and I promise you we’re going to win one down the line.

It’s crazy to think about that JOURNEY. 

Rick Scuteri/AP Photo

And next we’re headed for the tournament — that’s on the door, too.

Not just making it to the tournament, but advancing. 

I’m talking Elite Eight, I’m talking Final Four. I’m talking ... who knows?

All I do know is — and I really, really mean this — we can accomplish anything in this program.

There is no limit.

As we get ready for these next few weeks, I’ve got two things on my mind. 

First, how far I’ve come from Fresno, watching my family play pickup games in my grandparents’ driveway as a little kid. 

I think a lot about that little girl doing dribbling drills in the front yard, working with my dad on my floaters. He’d be holding a broomstick in the air to make sure I had the perfect arc. 

Lil Aari has come so far. I’m so proud of her.

And the second thing I’ve been thinking about is who we’re playing for: the people who helped us get here who graduated last year.

This is for every iteration of our team — every Wildcat for the past 15 years — who had MAKE IT TO NCAA TOURNEY on the locker room door.

We’re going to play every game like it’s for y’all.

Like it’s for all of us.

I think a lot about that little girl doing dribbling drills in the front yard.

Aari McDonald

So, to my teammates: This is that moment. We in here.

To our coaches: Thank you for helping guide us on this amazing journey. 

To the fans: We love you, and we wouldn’t be here without you.

And to everybody else: 

Man ... y’all got a PROBLEM to worry about.

See you soon (:

Aarion McDonald | Arizona Wildcats

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