Before the team boarded their charter and headed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said that beyond her starters, she didn’t know how her rotations would work. After their showing against Louisville, that should be clearer. The Wildcats overcame a bad call at the end of regulation to pull off the 61-59 win in overtime.
Arizona was led by Cate Reese, who scored 21 points on 6-for-12 shooting. Reese hit three of five shots from distance and connected on all six of her free throws. She added five rebounds and a steal.
The Wildcats came out and looked flustered from the start. Their defense was locked in, but their offense was unorganized. While Arizona was stealing the ball from Louisville, the Cardinals weren’t forced to do much to get the Wildcats to turn the ball over. At the end of the first half, each team had eight turnovers. They would both end the game with 17.
“The players were saying the ball was really bouncy, I guess,” Barnes said. “It was funny. I think it was just a different court, different environment. Different ball, too, so that just throws everybody off. But we still didn’t take care of the ball. We knew that. We knew there were some key possessions that we shouldn’t have turned it over.”
Arizona struggled to get shots off let alone make them. Then, in came Helena Pueyo. The Spaniard, who has been a backup wing for most of her career at Arizona, came in at point guard. She made passes that should have been assists. Her teammates missed a few, but at least they were getting shots off instead of turning the ball over. Then, the shots started to fall.
“Helena seems to do that a lot,” Barnes said. “She has a great calming effect with her game or demeanor and just her style of play. And she’s able to play multiple positions, so she gave us some good minutes. And it wasn’t her best game. Helena usually can do so much more. But the stuff that she did helped us win. I think everybody that came in, they did something different. It helped us get a win.”
A lineup of Pueyo, Taylor Chavez, Ariyah Copeland, Sam Thomas, and Bendu Yeaney started taking control. Later, it was Shaina Pellington, Pueyo, Chavez, Copeland, and Thomas.
Pueyo only scored three points, but she tied Thomas for a team-high five assists. Just behind them was Pellington with four assists to go along with nine points and two steals.
The Wildcats settled down and started hitting shots, building a seven-point lead. They just couldn’t shake the Cardinals, who feasted from the free-throw line. In the third quarter, Louisville scored half of its 18 points from the charity stripe. Heading into the fourth quarter, Thomas, Pellington, and Yeaney all had three fouls. Thomas picked up her fourth less than two minutes into the quarter and eventually fouled out.
As regulation wound down, it looked like Arizona was headed to the win. With 13 seconds left, a two-point lead, and a foul to give, Yeaney gave what looked like a foul on the floor. The officials called it a shooting foul. Louisville sunk the shots to tie it up, and Arizona wasn’t able to connect on its final attempt in regulation.
Neither team was very efficient. The Wildcats eventually raised their team shooting percentage to 36.7 from the floor, but Louisville went 18.2 percent from 3 and Arizona hit just 26.3 percent from distance.
But when it mattered, Yeaney hit the big one. With 2:41 to go in overtime, the Arizona guard hit her only 3-pointer of the game after five misses. It came off the assist from Pellington. Almost one minute later, it was a pull-up jumper from Yeaney to seal the deal.
“I just kept shooting,” Yeaney said. “I knew one of them was going to fall. I kept saying on the bench. I said, ‘One of these are gonna fall, and when it falls like it’s gonna be a good one.’ And you know, they backed up and I was like, you know, if you’re going to back up, I’m gonna shoot it.”
Yeaney ended the night with 12 points, going 5 for 17 from the field. She added four rebounds, an assist, and a steal.
Ware ended her night just short of a double-double with 8 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, and a steal in a place that didn’t hold the best memories for her.
Just before her senior year in high school, Ware tore her ACL at a volleyball tournament at the Sanford Pentagon. The day before, Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio had watched her play. She would lose her senior seasons in both basketball and volleyball, but neither Barnes nor Rubio wavered in their desire for her to be a Wildcat. Just two years later, she returned to play in front of friends and family and make some happy memories against a top 10 team.
“This is the place that I hurt my knee,” Ware said. “I wasn’t really thinking about that before I came here, but then I was like, ‘Oh, this is the place I did it.’ But that was in the past. It’s just great anytime I can come back home just getting to see my family because they love to come watch me play and I wish they had more chances to do that.”
The Wildcats walked away with a big early-season win that wouldn’t have even been on the schedule just a few short years ago when Barnes was rebuilding the program. At that time, she worried more about the confidence of her players when she scheduled. Now, she’s willing to challenge them, and they’re able to rise to that challenge.
In the wider world of the sport, Arizona has now joined teams like Louisville and South Carlina in helping grow women’s basketball. Only good things can come from that.
“If we want to grow the game, and we truly say we want to grow the game, then you’ve got to be willing to do things like this,” Louisville head coach Jeff Walz said. “And for us, it was our first game of the year. It was a great ballgame. I told the kids in the locker room I said, ‘you know, I’m looking forward to going back and watching it on TV to watch the film.’ And it’s an overtime game, 61-59 against two top 20 teams. So I think it’s important. I know that coaches will hopefully continue to do it...So people that might not necessarily be a true women’s basketball fan can tune in and appreciate how talented these women are.”
Barnes thinks that it should have earned her team something else, too.
“We talked after the game and said we didn’t even play our best game, but we played a really good team,” Barnes said. “We are tested early. And there’s a lot of promise so I’ve always been optimistic. Everybody always doubts Arizona. I feel like the Pac-12 and Arizona. I don’t know if it’s me. Maybe it’s me, but they always doubt what we do. And I think we’re pretty good. And I think that we just earned some respect today, and I like that. But I don’t mind being the underdog.”