Taylor Chavez and Lauren Ware lead Arizona women’s basketball to 1st round bye at Pac-12 tournament
This could well have been Arizona women’s basketball’s last home game of the season. If the Wildcats lost to USC, their chance to host the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament could also fade. With them would have been an opportunity for Wildcats fans to watch their beloved Sam Thomas play in person at least once more.
Arizona didn’t let that happen. The Wildcats came back from a slow start to defeat USC 68-59. The win improved Arizona’s record to 20-6 overall, making Adia Barnes the first head coach in program history to have at least 20 wins in four straight seasons.
Arizona came out looking overwhelmed. The Women of Troy held the Wildcats to just six points in the first quarter. It looked like it could be a replay of USC’s win at the Galen Center in early January or UCLA’s win two days ago.
“I think the players are feeling a bit of pressure,” Barnes said. It was a game to be won and I wasn’t going to water it down. It was a game we had to win. It was a game that was really important because we needed to bounce back from Thursday. We got killed. So I think it was a game that we already had a game without Cate (Reese), so let’s adapt. We know we didn’t play defense and give the effort we wanted for the last game. So I think at the start sometimes they’re just a little tight in the sense that we knew we had to win today and we had our backs against the wall. But I wasn’t going to lie and say it wasn’t important because it was important for a lot of different reasons. And I knew psychologically that was important because we’re going to the Pac-12 tournament, so we can’t play like we did on Thursday… and think we’re going to be successful in the tournament. It wasn’t going to work. So I knew it was important for a lot of other reasons like rankings, all that. The tournament standings, all that, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. It was a must win for us more to improve and we will play a must situation in a few days. So we better get used to it now because it’s gonna be our world.
Taylor Chavez and Lauren Ware weren’t going to let Arizona lose.
Chavez was held off from Thursday’s UCLA game for undisclosed reasons. The former Sixth Pac-12 Player of the Year and preseason member of the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award watch list for the nation’s top shooting guard had appeared in just 20 of Arizona’s 25 games prior to the USC competition. She averaged just 11.4 minutes in those games as she battled medical issues all season.
“I was fortunate to be able to work with Jaime (Fernandez), our strength and conditioning coordinator, as well as (athletic trainer) Jessie (Johnson),” Chavez said. “They did a great job helping me through the ups and downs of the season. And it’s a long season, so there’s just a lot of ups and downs and you just have to stay focused and try to get through those things as they happen. And for the most part, things like a concussion or my hip problem… are out of my control, so I’m just trying to do as much preventative stuff as possible for that.
On Saturday, Chavez had the opportunity to show why all these accolades have come to him. The guard replaced during the second quarter and had a seven-point run of its own to cut USC’s lead from nine to just two. Her run came on two 3-point shots, including an and-1 that sent her to the line for the four-point play.
Chavez finished the game with 18 points, which was a season high. She shot 5 of 9 from the field, including 5 of 7 from 3 points away. She added two assists and two steals.
Arizona was murdered on the boards against UCLA. Ware seemed to take this to heart. She battled for rebounds all game, finishing with a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds.
The Wildcats also got double-digit point contributions from Thomas and Shaina Pellington. Pellington added 14 points, three rebounds, four assists and two assists while committing no turnovers. Thomas had 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals.
The players made changes, but so did the coaches. Barnes has moved away from her defensive training philosophy. She had to let go of her attachment to player-to-player defense. The move to the zone was the Wildcats’ only response to dynamic USC rookie Rayah Marshall.
“If we hadn’t gone into the zone, we wouldn’t have won the game,” Barnes said. “Because we couldn’t stop Marshall and the zone saved us…I’m not a zone coach. Maybe play a little more zone now because of our staff. You have to do what you have to do to win… but it’s really not my philosophy as a coach to sit in a zone.
Defense will be even more important to Arizona going forward as Barnes tries to figure out the offense on the half court.
“If we’re going to sit in the half court and just attack and think we’re going to win games, that’s not how we’re going to win,” Barnes said. “That’s just not who we are right now. We can evolve into that, and we have a little time, but that’s not what Arizona is today. So the way we are going to win is to change the defense, to be aggressive, to be able to play different defenses. We have to win and that was a difference today. And sometimes it’s difficult, but we’re focused and we’re able to do it, but we’re not going to win if we don’t. If we can’t seat people, if we can’t manufacture points of our defense. We’re not good enough in the half court right now.