The Arizona Wildcats appeared to limp into the NCAA Tournament. They had lost three of their last four heading to San Antonio and shot under 40 percent in four of their last five games.
The two weeks between their Pac-12 Tournament loss to UCLA and their first-round rout of Stony Brook clearly did them some good. They are in the Elite Eight for the first time ever.
Aari McDonald said that time off allowed them to recharge their bodies and recalibrate their minds. And, by the looks of it, get plenty of shots up too.
“We really trusted each other,” said McDonald, who is averaging 23 points per game with crazy efficiency in the NCAA Tournament. “It was like, ‘hey, if you want to do something special and go far, we have to be on one page. Everybody has to buy in and we have to play together as one.’ And I think everybody took that to heart and we came out, we’ve been firing and we’ve been just creating havoc on both ends of the court.”
The proof is in the numbers, particularly offensively. (Arizona’s defense, their bread and butter, has always been stout. Even during that late-season lull).
The Wildcats are shooting 46% percent from the field, 43% from 3 and only averaging 10.3 turnovers per game in the NCAA Tournament. Coming into it, they were shooting 40.8% from the field, 31.8% from 3 and coughing the ball up almost 13 times a game.
You might expect the opposite from a program that had not been on this stage since 2005. You might think they would have some jitters, for the moment to be too big for them, or for them just to be happy to be here. No. They not only expected to be in the NCAA Tournament, they arrived in San Antonio prepared to win the whole dang thing.
“It is unchartered territory, but I think it doesn’t matter because we’re playing some of our best basketball,” head coach Adia Barnes said after Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen win over Texas A&M. “Honestly, before the game I didn’t know if we would be a little bit tight. That’s not what I’m seeing. I’m seeing a look in their eyes that’s a look of confidence. I am seeing they are ready to go to war. I’m seeing they believe in what I’m saying and what I’m asking them to do. There’s no question. They look me in the eye. They’re ready. So I’m ready to go to war with this team. I wouldn’t choose it any different way with any different team. We’re ready for the next game.”
Senior forward Sam Thomas said Saturday that her team would only celebrate the Sweet Sixteen win—the biggest in school history, mind you—for 30 minutes before getting some sleep and preparing for Indiana.
“We’re not satisfied with going to the Elite Eight,” Barnes said. “This is unchartered territory, so we have nothing to lose. No one in the country expected us to be in the Elite Eight. When they talked about the region, no one even considered us, we weren’t even in the conversation. In the Arizona room we believe in each other. That’s all that matters. That’s what we’re going with. We fight for each other. We play hard, play with passion, grit. We don’t take plays off. That’s why we’re having success.”
The Wildcats got 31 points from McDonald against Texas A&M but it might have been their most well-rounded offensive performance of the season.
Bendu Yeaney hit a pair of 3s and made some nice plays in transition. Shaina Pellington scored several baskets inside and had three assists, allowing McDonald to get open shots off the ball. Thomas sank three spot-up 3s. Cate Reese and Trinity Baptiste held their own against a much-bigger A&M frontcourt. Helena Pueyo scored five points in the fourth quarter to help put the Aggies away.
All eight rotation players scored and five had two or more assists.
“Everybody played their part,” Barnes said.
The Wildcats shot 46% and 13 for 29 from long range, their most prolific 3-point shooting night of the season. Barnes said she was “quite irritated” about all the questions she was getting about her team’s offensive struggles. She doesn’t have to worry about those anymore.
“I think we’re moving the ball a lot more,” Thomas said. “We’re driving and we’re kicking. We’re getting a lot of assists off those shots.”
As for the defense, well that was impossible to ignore. It was everywhere. The Wildcats forced 19 turnovers and turned them into 28 points. How many points did Texas A&M have off takeaways? Two. Arizona only turned the ball over eight times, their second-lowest total of the season.
“We were hitting shots, we were making it tough for them, so it was just fun for us, and that’s what it came down to—we were having more fun than them,” Yeaney said.
The Wildcats wound up winning by 15, making a 2-seed look like a 12-seed.
“For us, it’s like we don’t care who we’re playing next,” Barnes said. “We know every team is really good. For us, it was kind of like we’re on to the next. Now we’re all Indiana. We’re not looking at anything else. We know it’s going to be a tough game. All these games at this time of year are tough. I always talk about in the game, it’s not the last possession, it’s the missed 50/50 ball in the first quarter, it’s the missed box-out, it’s the little things that matter. One day at a time. We’re going to watch some film tonight. It’s going to be light. Walk-through tomorrow obviously for both teams. We just go out and play. I’m happy because we’re peaking at the right time. … That’s how you win championships.”