Haley Jones and Aari McDonald put on a show in the Final Four games last weekend with both players hailing from Northern California high schools. And they did it just one year removed when another Northern Californian was the NCAA Player of the Year. We talked to both of the high school head coaches for Haley and Aari in the aftermath of this year’s national championship.
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The concluding minutes of last weekend’s NCAA women’s basketball championships in San Antonio almost felt like a duel between two recent standouts from Northern California high schools. There was Haley Jones from Archbishop Mitty of San Jose doing everything for Stanford, while for Arizona it was Aari McDonald from Brookside Christian of Stockton.
Jones, who was the Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year in 2019 and was Girls State Athlete of the Year for the 2018-19 school year, scored the winning basket for the Cardinal in their last two Final Four games. She had 24 points in the semifinals vs. South Carolina and then a team-leading 17 points with eight rebounds in the championship, which Stanford won, 54-53. She was named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player.
McDonald became the symbol of Arizona’s rise from a No. 3 seed in its region all the way to one made shot of winning it all. She captivated the entire nation with 26 points in leading the Wildcats to an upset of super power UConn in the Final Four semis and led all scorers with 22 points in the final. Her buzzer-beater attempt against Stanford, with three players guarding her, just missed by a few inches to the left.
Jones is a player many in the California high school community were especially happy to see grab a trophy in the final game of a season. She was on top-ranked teams in the state in her last three seasons at Mitty, but lost once to Clovis West of Fresno in the CIF Open Division final in a very tight game, then lost in a triple-overtime game to Pinewood (Los Altos Hills) in the NorCal finals and then was on a team that was upset by Salesian (Richmond) in the NorCal playoffs.
“The entire Archbishop Mitty community is very happy for and incredibly proud of Haley,” said longtime Archbishop Mitty head coach Sue Phillips. “She is a fantastic basketball player, but an even better person. Haley is a terrific teammate and a pleasure to coach.
“In theory, one would think as the top recruit in the country out of high school, Haley would eventually achieve a similar status at the collegiate level,” Phillips continued. “But, for Haley to emerge as the MOP and win a national championship as a sophomore, is simply remarkable. I’m not surprised it happened, but rather taken aback it happened so soon.”
While Jones was runner-up to Los Angeles Windward’s Charisma Osborne as State Freshman of the Year in 2016, then was State Sophomore of the Year in 2017, runner-up to Osborne as Ms. Basketball in 2018 and then Ms. Basketball herself in 2019, McDonald had a more traveled high school career.
After playing at Bullard High in Fresno as a freshman (her hometown and where she was one of the top players in the area that season), McDonald transferred to Brookside Christian. As a sophomore, McDonald didn’t get eligible and had to sit out that season. There also was a coaching change at the school (which is now closed after the property it sits on was purchased by a local school district) with Pico Wilburn taking over for Que Ngo (a former D5 State Coach of the Year).
McDonald made up for lost time as she averaged 26 ppg for her team as a junior in 2015 (which lost in the D4 state finals to Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth) and then almost had the same totals as a senior despite that squad in 2016 losing all of its other top players from the year before.
“What Aari showed me (during the weeks of the NCAA tourney) was just a lot of grit,” said Wilburn, who has not been coaching in recent seasons due to his job as a facilities manager with Home Depot and other family responsibilities. “She is just one of those people destined to succeed. She has always shown a love and passion for basketball and just loves it.”
Jones was a McDonald’s All-American and often ranked near the top of her graduating class in various recruiting rankings. McDonald could have been the first player named McDonald (either boys or girls) to have been chosen for the game in 2016, but was skipped over. She’s not the biggest point guard so she’s just had to prove that some of those early evaluations were incorrect.
“She’s actually had this in her this whole time,” said Wilburn when asked if there was an aspect of McDonald’s game that had improved since high school. “She just arrived where everybody could see it. She’s always been that kind of kid and player.”
McDonald, who also transferred to Arizona after starting out her collegiate career at Washington, just this week has declared for the WNBA Draft. She could have returned to the Wildcats with an extra year of eligibility due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Jones will be a junior next season at Stanford.
There’s also a connection between McDonald and 2020 WNBA No. 1 draft pick and recent NCAA player of the year Sabrina Ionescu, who also is from Northern California from Miramonte of Orinda and was Ms. Basketball in 2016. In McDonald’s senior year, the CIF forced Brookside Christian up into the NorCal Open Division where it had to meet unbeaten Miramonte. The Knights had no chance and in the final high school game of McDonald’s prep career her team lost 109-41.
“She was limited in some respects at Brookside because she had to break the press, she had to score and she had to guard the other team’s best player every night,” said Wilburn, who earlier in his career coached McDonald’s All-Americans Alexis Gray-Lawson and Devanei Hampton at Oakland Tech. “Aari just plays at one speed and that’s lightning fast. She’s also physically strong like Alexis was at Tech.”
Both head coaches were aware of the NorCal strength being shown throughout the NCAA tourney.
“It was great to see two California players shine on college basketball’s biggest stage,” Phillips said. “Congratulations to Aari on her outstanding career and inspiring run in the tournament…much respect and appreciation.”
“Of course I wanted Aari and her team to win,” Wilburn said. “But Haley was great, too. And I got to know (Stanford head coach) Tara VanDerveer well. Very happy for her.”
Phillips hopes all of the attention on Jones and McDonald plus all of the close games throughout the tourney increases support for the sport she’s been heavily involved in since 1993 (her first season as Mitty’s head coach).
“I just LOVED to see the amount of interest in the women’s game,” she said. “We can only hope to capitalize on this momentum and continue grow the game at the grass roots level.”