The Arizona Wildcats are making their first-ever appearance in the Final Four and standing in their way is a team that reaches this stage every year—the UConn Huskies.
UA head coach Adia Barnes and several players met with the media Wednesday to preview the matchup, which will tip off on Friday at 6:30 p.m. PT in San Antonio.
Here’s the best of what they had to say.
Adia’s keys to beating UConn: “They’re really good in transition. They run a lot of chin actions that, fortunately for us, we’ve been able to guard all through the Pac-12 because like every Pac-12 team pretty much runs chin. But they’re just really gifted offensively. I think one of the keys is going to be not getting beat back door, not allowing easy 3-point shots. We need to control the tempo because they a lot of different ways to score and they’re really good, so we have to play them honest and have to play really good defense. I don’t know if they’ve faced a lot of pressure. I don’t know if a lot of teams are silly enough to press full court or to do different things, but that’s what we have to do. We’re not going to change what we do. So we need to be aggressive, need to play solid defense, need to slow them down in transition and just make them work for shots. We’re going to take punches, they’re going to hit some great shots because they’re a great offensive team that’s extremely talented in scoring in different ways, but we have to make it hard for them to score. And then we have to be able to go and score on the other end.”
Barnes on Aari McDonald being matched up with Paige Bueckers: “It’s really exciting. It’s a senior against a freshman. I think Paige is a phenomenal player. I watched her all through AAU. She’s so good. She’s gonna be like the next Diana Taurasi or even write her own story. But she reminds me a lot of her swag and her composure and her confidence. She’s just amazing. I think that it’s a great matchup because they’re different athletes, are different styles but they’re both really, really good. I think Aari is excited, I’m sure Paige is excited. I think it’s great for women’s basketball.”
McDonald on being matched up with Bueckers: “I’m very excited for this matchup. I think I’ve called this since we got here and I’ve been telling my teammates we match up well with them. But she’s a talented player. I’ll give her that. But I’m gonna make it hard for her to score and I’m really excited to defend her.”
McDonald on Bueckers: “She’s crafty. She finds different ways to score and she proved that she can score on all three levels. She moves without the ball. She shoots very efficiently, has high percentages on the court…and she’s active everywhere.”
McDonald on playing UConn in the Final Four with a chance to reach the national title game: “I’m really excited. I mean, even if my mom was in the way, I gotta knock her over to try to get to that. But I’m really excited to face UConn. They’re a talented team, well-coached and we’re out for the challenge. So we’re just gonna go out there and play solid for 40 minutes.”
More McDonald on UConn: “We already know what they’re about. Powerhouse, well-coached, skillful players. Hey, I like my chances with my teammates. Ride or die. We’re going to war with them.”
Cate Reese on slowing down UConn’s posts: “I would say just stopping them before they receive the ball, make it more difficult. I mean, we normally try to front the post players because we’re normally undersized, so I think just being able to get in front of them and just kind of make it more difficult for them to receive the ball is a start. But obviously they’re going to get the ball and they’re going to get some points because they’re good players. We just have to make sure we limit those points to the smallest number we can in order to just give us a chance.”
Reese on being a big underdog: “I mean, speaking from my example, coming in my freshman year we were the underdogs in like every game we played. So I think that we kind of have a chip on our shoulder in that sense that we’ve been an underdog before and we’ve proved to other people that we’re more than that. We’re a better team. So I think that I we’ll play just how we normally do and I think it’ll be great, but we’ve definitely been in a situation where we’re the lower team that shouldn’t win, so I think there might be some people that we prove wrong Friday.”
Reese playing UConn in the Final Four: “It’s definitely a crazy feeling. I mean, I’m sure it is for everyone, but it’s so weird because you see them on TV and it’s obviously everyone knows who Coach Geno (Auriemma) is. But at the end of the day…they put their shoes on the same way that we do. So I think we need to keep that in mind and just remember that. I’m excited for the opportunity and just to be performing on the biggest stage in women’s basketball.”
Lauren Ware, who played against Paige Bueckers on the travel circuit: “I’ve known her growing up and I played against her my last year, that was my first time ever playing against her. But she’s an amazing player, obviously, but also just representing the Midwest. There’s a lot of good players that come out there that don’t really get that exposure. She’s just really consistent and steady. I think she can do everything basically. It’s hard to limit her scoring because she’s gonna go get hers the matter what. She creates shots for herself, she also does really good on defense as well.”
McDonald on former UA guard Tee Tee Starks being a grad assistant at UConn: “It’s crazy having Tee Tee on other side after playing with her for a couple years, but it’s exciting. She’s my friend, my sister. But on Friday she might be my enemy for like 40 minutes or however long it takes.”
Shaina Pellington on containing UConn’s guards: “I think the key to us playing their guards is just playing Arizona defense. I think we’ve been doing a great job defensively so far containing other teams’ guards. Obviously they’re very dynamic. They’re pretty good at shooting all around and they can get to the rim. So I think the key to that is just making sure we can stay in front of our person. And if we can’t, communicating and helping each other when we see somebody is at a disadvantage and whatever situation there is. But yeah obviously they’re great guards, they’re very dynamic, but I have faith in this team and our guards that we can hold them.”
Sam Thomas on facing UConn: “Yeah, this is insane. I mean, playing UConn, you don’t want to get too caught up in the name but obviously it’s UConn. They’re coached by Geno, who’s great, credit to UConn. And like as a freshman you watch UConn, you look up to UConn. Like, ‘oh, like I want to be there one day, I want to our program to be like there one day,’ and now to actually have that chance to play against them, it’s amazing. I’m so glad we get to play UConn. No pressure is on us as I’m sure everyone knows. No one expects us to win this game. So we can go out just play free, have fun and show the world we can do.”
Barnes on the pressure of facing UConn: “Having confidence is really important this time of year, but I feel like our team is playing our best basketball. We’ve peaked at the right time. To win a championship, all it does is you have to beat that team one time. I feel like anybody this time of year can win one time on any given night.
I think for us there’s no pressure. No one expects Arizona to win a championship. No one expected Arizona to be in the Elite 8, Sweet 16, Final Four. We don’t have anything to lose. We can play loose, free, because we don’t have the pressure. We’re just going out, we’re having fun right now. We’re playing good basketball. We’re playing for each other, enjoying the ride. We’re going to put it all on the line. We play hard. We’re not soft. We don’t take plays off. We play with our hearts. It may not be pretty, and that’s okay. We’re going to give 100%. Whatever happens at the end of that, whether we win or lose, that’s what’s meant to be.”