The Arizona Wildcats started out the Pac-12 Tournament with a bang. Thursday’s 28-point victory over USC was the largest win not only in the first round of this year’s tournament, but in Wildcat tournament history.
The reward was a matchup with the No. 1 seed, Oregon. That’s the team that blanked Arizona in the fourth quarter just five days ago.
The Wildcats proved to be a far bigger challenge for the Ducks than they were during the regular season, but they couldn’t pull off the upset. First-half foul trouble, losing the rebound battle 37-20 and poor outside shooting ended as expected with a 77-63 defeat.
Aari McDonald led all scorers with 34 points. She added five assists, two rebounds and three steals to an all-around effort.
The only other Wildcat to score in double digits was Cate Reese, who ended the night with 13 points despite playing only 26 minutes. Reese added five rebounds to lead the team, as well as a block and a steal on the day.
On the other end of the court, the Ducks had four players in double digits, led by Ruthy Hebard with 21. With both of Arizona’s starting interior players limited to less than 26 minutes each, the Ducks were able to rack up 42 points in the paint.
The biggest advantage Arizona had might have been Oregon’s lack of depth. An injury to Hebard kept her out of two games last month, both of which the Ducks lost. Maite Cazorla joined her team late in Las Vegas, staying behind in Eugene to recuperate from illness. Neither was 100 percent according to their coach, Kelly Graves.
Of course, the Wildcats have their own depth problems. The team has 10 players available, with only nine of those getting regular minutes. That bench was shortened when Reese and Dominique McBryde were saddled with foul trouble.
Both of Arizona’s inside starters were limited to just eight minutes in the first half. McBryde had to sit the entire second quarter. After missing a layup on the fastbreak, she compounded the error by reaching in under the Wildcats’ basket with 23 seconds to go in the first quarter.
Destiny Graham stepped in to give Arizona productive minutes when McBryde and Reese struggled with fouls. Then, she went down with a lower leg injury 30 seconds into the second quarter, limiting her to just four minutes in the half. While Graham returned in the second half, the Wildcats were essentially down to six players for most of the opening 20 minutes.
Against USC, the Wildcats had a balanced scoring attack, ending with four players in double digits. That was missing from the outset against the Ducks.
McDonald scored the first eight of Arizona’s points. At the half, she had 18 of the team’s 28, and assisted on three more buckets. No one else had more than two points, and only Sam Thomas had an assist.
McDonald willed the team to close the gap on several occasions. At the end of one, they were down by just five. Just two minutes into the second quarter, a McDonald layup on the fastbreak closed it to one.
Oregon responded as they usually do. Two 3-pointers and a layup pushed their lead back out to nine.
Two buckets by Arizona were followed by three by Oregon. Two more buckets by the Wildcats, then two by the Ducks.
Every time Arizona closed the gap, Oregon replied. At the end of the first half, they had a 40-28 lead.
The second half followed a similar theme. Arizona kept it close, cutting the lead to single digits early in the fourth quarter. They just couldn’t surmount Oregon’s advantage.
Missed shots. Failure to secure rebounds. Turnovers at inopportune times. All combined to allow the Ducks to pull away over the final three minutes.
The Wildcats will have to wait to learn their postseason fate. With an 18-13 record, they will likely make the WNIT, but that won’t be announced until after the NCAA field has been selected.
There will be 32 automatic qualifiers to the WNIT’s 64-team field. That group consists of the top team in each conference that doesn’t get selected to the NCAA Tournament. According to Charlie Creme’s latest Bracketology and the regular season standings, the Pac-12’s automatic qualifier would be Utah; Arizona would need an at-large bid.
The WNIT field will be announced on Mar. 18 and play will kick off on Mar. 20.