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Sam Thomas, Aari McDonald continue to represent UA in the WNBA – Arizona Daily Star

Mercury forward Sam Thomas,, left, runs behind the defense of former Arizona teammate and current Dream guard Aari McDonald in the second quarter of Friday night’s WNBA game in Phoenix.

Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

Sam Thomas and Aari McDonald were both excited to square off Friday night it Phoenix.

It was Wildcat-versus-Wildcat when the Atlanta Dream rolled into town to play the Phoenix Mercury. It marked their second showdown of the season, but the first in Phoenix — and the first chance for Wildcats fans to see the two former stars up close.

“Getting the start here in my second home and in front of Arizona fans really means a lot to me,” McDonald said. “… Just to be back in Arizona. It’s always that excitement. … it’s a big blessing, and everything has come full circle.”

McDonald used this as extra incentive. She slashed into the lane and kicked it out to Rhyne Howard for a 3-pointer on a no-look pass, picked some steals, made a move on Diana Taurasi for a baseline layup and blew past defenders to score — everything that Arizona fans saw her do so often in college. The speedy point guard finished Friday’s game with 13 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals in 39 minutes as the Mercury won, 90-88.

Thomas, the rookie, logged an assist while playing four first-half minutes.

McDonald and Thomas will be forever linked. They came to Arizona with a dream of putting the program on the map.

They did — the UA made their first Final Four in 2021, coming within one shot of a national championship. The Wildcats’ success has set the stage for the best recruiting class in program history. The UA’s 2022 group includes McDonald’s All-Americans Maya Nnaji and Paris Clark, a USA Basketball player in Kailyn Gilbert and a member of Team Canada in Lemyah Hylton.

While Thomas and McDonald may not be wearing Arizona uniforms anymore, they continue to represent Arizona as professionals in the WNBA.

“I feel like we came into Tucson to change the program and tried to build it up and leave it in the best hands possible. Now, here we are, continuing to grow and show these young recruits that go to Arizona, we also have this,” Thomas said. 

“UConn is a powerhouse. They have everyone in the WNBA and now we’re building that as well, where Arizona is a powerhouse and we’ve got some players in the WNBA. Hopefully, we can get more in here and just keep building.”

Both took different routes to get where they are.

McDonald was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, while Thomas made the Mercury as an undrafted free agent.

Both credit their UA coaches for their growth as players.

“That speaks volumes to coach (Adia) Barnes and coach Salvo (Coppa),” McDonald said. “Honestly, the work they put in with us over … what was it? Three, four, maybe five years? The work they put in with us. Just the knowledge that they ingrained into us, for us to apply and for us to make it to the next level, that means a lot.”

Dream guard Aari McDonald fights through a pick from Mercury forward Brianna Turner to keep marking guard Shey Peddy during Friday’s game in Phoenix.

McDonald has grown a lot in her second season with the Dream thanks to the work in the offseason. She focused on her ballhanding and reading the game. McDonald thinks the game has slowed down for her. She also feels more confident and comfortable in her role.

It showed on Friday, where she helped rally the Dream back from a 14-point deficit before they fell by a basket.

Heading into Friday’s game, McDonald was averaging 9.0 points, 2.1 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 24 1/2 minutes per game. She notched seven steals against Minnesota on June 1, the most in her WNBA career.

McDonald said the difference last year was, “I was more flat foot(ed).” Working with Dream coach Tanisha Wright has helped her. Rather than gamble on steals, McDonald has developed what she calls “more of a knack for the ball.”

Meanwhile, Thomas is settling into life as a professional. She’s learned the Mercury’s system and feels more confident. She’s gotten closer with her teammates. She’s going to bed earlier to make travel days easier.

WNBA games are scattered throughout the week, a change from the Friday-Sunday routine of Pac-12 play.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, what’s your schedule? What’s your schedule?’ And I’m just like, ‘I have no idea.’ We can be playing any day, anytime. It’s definitely different from college,” Thomas said. “…It’s all pretty random. We have off-days and then blackout days. Off days is self-explanatory off, but it’s also a chance for you to get treatment or if you don’t play a certain number of minutes, you can come in and get an extra workout with a coach, which is super nice. Then, blackout days are when no one comes in the gym. It’s nice to have these blackout days where it’s like, ‘No, you are not coming in. Everyone take the day off, get a mental break from being here all the time.’”

Mercury forward Sam Thomas dribbles around Dream guard AD Durr in the first quarter of Friday’s game.

The last time McDonald and Thomas played against each other was in Atlanta on May 29.

Thomas scored the first points of her WNBA career with a shot over McDonald.

“I had a really close one and I missed it and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t buy one,’” Thomas said. “Finally coming down the next time, Aari was on me again, and I was like, ‘OK, you gotta hit this one.’ And lucky enough, you know, open shot, hit it. Aari, obviously played great defense, but I was able to make the shot.”

On that night, McDonald and Thomas were guarding each other. On Friday night, McDonald stuck to Diana Taurasi, Shea Peddy and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

When they do guard each other or are close on the court, there is quite a bit of talk.

McDonald calls it “a friendly rivalry.” Though, true to her nature, McDonald never gives an inch.

“She was picking me up full-court and I was like, ‘Aari, why are you doing this? Don’t guard me the full-court,’” Thomas said. “She’s like, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m going to tell someone to set a screen for me.’ And she’s like, ‘I’ll pick up a foul and run them over.’ There’s just little fun stuff like that.”

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