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Aari McDonald scored 26 points and lead a smothering defensive effort for Arizona as the Wildcats beat UConn 69-59 Friday night to advance to the women’s NCAA Tournament championship game for the first time in school history.

The Wildcats never trailed against the favoured and fabled Huskies, who have made the Final Four 13 consecutive times, but haven’t made the championship game since 2016 when UConn won its 11th title.

Arizona held UConn to a season low in points, but still had to hold on late after leading by 14 late in the third quarter as the Huskies made a late push. At the final buzzer, McDonald threw the ball high in the air and was mobbed by her teammates near centre court. She shared a long hug with coach Adia Barnes, who starred as a player at the school in the late 1990s.

Arizona (21-5) will play Stanford for the title on Sunday night in an all Pac-12 final.

As she has done throughout the tournament, McDonald did it all for the Wildcats with slashing drives, pinpoint shooting from long range, and a defensive intensity that held UConn’s star freshman Paige Bueckers in check in for long stretches.

Bueckers, The Associated Press player of the year, finished with 18 points and her 3-pointer with 1:23 left got UConn within 60-55 in the final two minutes before Arizona closed out the win with free throws. Christyn Williams led UConn (28-2) with 20 points before fouling out.

Stanford top South Carolina

Haley Jones came up with a big shot, and Stanford got a little bit of luck to get back to the national championship game for the first time in 11 years.

Jones scored 24 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 32 seconds left, to help Stanford beat South Carolina 66-65.

“It was a battle. It was a really tough game where we had to work really hard,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.

It’s Stanford’s first trip to the title game since 2010, which was also in San Antonio. 

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Leading by one, the Cardinal turned it over with 6.2 seconds left at midcourt and Brea Beal missed a contested layup as Lexie Hull hustled back to get in her way. Aliyah Boston grabbed the rebound, but her putback attempt also bounced off the rim setting off a wild celebration by the Cardinal.

“It is nice to have a little karma go your way,” VanDerveer said.

VanDerveer, who earlier this season topped Pat Summitt’s all-time win mark of 1,098 victories, will be looking for her third national championship at the school and first since 1992.

Trailing 65-64 with 32 seconds left, Jones hit a jumper from the corner off a rebound that gave the Cardinal their one-point lead.

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“I just saw the ball bouncing around and most of my teammates were hitting some bodies to open it up. I just let it fly and I said, `Please, Jesus, go in,’ and it did,” said Jones, who was 11 for 14 from the field. “And then we just had to go on to the next play, there’s no time to get hyped about, we had to get back on defence.”

Stanford players celebrate their 66-65 victory over South Carolina to reach the women’s NCAA Tournament championship title game on Friday. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The Gamecocks had a couple chances after Jones’ shot. On the next possession, Boston had her shot blocked, but got her own rebound. Then, with 15 seconds left, Destanni Henderson threw a pass that was stolen by Ashten Prechtel.

After an inbounds, Cameron Brink lost the ball at midcourt to Boston, giving South Carolina those final two chances.

“We got a pretty decent, two looks at it, layup, follow up,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We just came up short. We lost the way we did and it’s heartbreaking.”


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