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Arizona women’s basketball outmuscles TCU to advance to WNIT championship game

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

In the first four games of the WNIT, Arizona had a size advantage over an entirely mid-major slate of opponents. They dominated. The question was whether they could do the same against a Big 12 team whose calling card was strong interior play.

It turns out that they could win, just not dominate, as the Wildcats pulled out the victory over TCU by a score of 59-53 in front of a program-record 10,135 fans.

Aari McDonald led all scorers with 19 points. She also led Arizona in rebounds with nine.

Dominique McBryde contributed 13 points and six rebounds, while Sam Thomas and Cate Reese scored nine points apiece.

The contest turned into a slug-fest where few fouls were called despite very physical play by both teams. TCU shot 14 free throws, most of them in the second half. Arizona shot only two until the Horned Frogs tried to extend the game over the final minute.

“It was just a tough game,” McDonald said. “I feel like our team matched their physicality.”

For the first time all postseason, the Wildcats didn’t start the game with the ball in their hands. It looked like it might be a bad sign when TCU built a four-point lead. After all, Arizona hadn’t trailed for more than 30 seconds throughout the tournament.

The Horned Frogs couldn’t keep it up, though. Their shots stopped falling, and they struggled to hold onto the ball. By the end of the quarter, they had turned the ball over six times. Arizona had turned the giveaways into four points. TCU would go on to give up 15 turnovers that turned into 19 Arizona points on the night.

The Horned Frogs couldn’t make it up on offense. Over 40 minutes, they shot just 27 percent to Arizona’s 40 percent.

For Arizona, the problem was denying the second chance points. TCU badly out-rebounded them, beginning with a 13-8 edge in the first 10 minutes. When the final horn blew, TCU had secured 50 rebounds to 33 for Arizona. They turned their 23 offensive rebounds into 14 second-chance points.

“Although they out-rebounded us, I felt like we played solid, good basketball defense,” McDonald said. “Dominique got some key stops. Sam got some key blocks. Tee Tee (Starks) always (does) a solid job on the defensive end. So, each of those moments or plays added up, and it got us the win.”

In the second quarter, the Wildcats looked like they were on their way to a dominant performance. They built a double-digit lead, going ahead by 12 on a Reese layup with 1:51 left in the first half.

The Frogs fought back, scoring the final six points of the half to cut the lead to six. Just as they did in the first quarter, TCU ended the period with a last-second shot. The teams went into the locker rooms with Arizona leading 29-23.

The third quarter has been shaky for Arizona for most of the season. This time they held their own. The two teams traded baskets, neither one able to put together more than two baskets in a row.

For the third straight quarter, TCU hit a big shot with seconds left. With only seven ticks on the clock, Jayde Woods made a 3-pointer to cut Arizona’s lead to 40-33.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, it looked like TCU might be on their way to a big comeback. They cut the lead to five points, then Kianna Ray picked off a pass from McDonald. The fast break layup made it a one-possession game.

McDonald returned the favor just 20 seconds later. Jordan Moore sent a bad pass into McDonald’s hands, and she was down the court getting the two points back.

“It was my fault they cut it to three points,” McDonald said. “I had the turnover. I just knew I couldn’t hang my head. I just had to step up. I had to be that leader for my team. I feel like our defense really helped us pull this win out.”

The Wildcats slowly pushed their lead back out to seven points as the Horned Frogs went 1-for-8 down the stretch. With 57 seconds to go, TCU started the fouling game.

With six seconds left on the clock and a six-point deficit, Ray raced down the court. She attempted a 3-point shot only to be blocked by Thomas, who gathered the ball and dribbled out the clock as her teammates started their celebration.

The WNIT Finals will be an all-Wildcat event as Arizona hosts the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday at noon.