Three years make all the difference. When Adia Barnes returned to coach her alma mater, the team was lucky to draw 800 people. Last year, they won six games. On Saturday, a sell-out crowd of 14,644 fans filled McKale Center to watch the Arizona Wildcats compete for the WNIT Championship...and win.
In a game that was sloppy at times, the home Wildcats dominated the visiting Northwestern Wildcats in a 56-42 victory.
“The crowd today was tremendous,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “I think it was great for our players, even though it was probably an advantage for Arizona. It was great for our players to play in that atmosphere and have that many people care about our sport.”
Aari McDonald led all scorers with 19 on her way to being named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. She added seven rebounds, six steals and two assists.
Cate Reese had 13 points and 9 rebounds. She joined McDonald on the All Tournament Team.
Tee Tee Starks also put up double-digit points with 12 points on 5 -for-7 shooting, and added five rebounds and an assist.
The game looked like it would be a tight match between two fairly evenly-matched teams. Despite shooting only 23.5 percent, Northwestern kept Arizona within their sites early, largely because the UA Wildcats couldn’t protect the ball. When the first 10 minutes ended, the visitors were trailing by only four points.
The problem for the NU Wildcats was that two of their top three scorers couldn’t buy a bucket. Lindsey Pulliam, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Abi Scheid have averaged in double digits over the course of the season. Scheid is one of two Northwestern players who shot over 100 3-pointers this season, and she made 38.2 percent of them.
For Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Scheid, Saturday was a different story. Against Arizona, only Pulliam was able to get her shot to fall. Kunaiyi-Akpanah didn’t score at all until she hit two free throws in the third quarter. Scheid finally hit a layup at the 7:45 mark in the fourth.
“(Arizona) played as hard a defense...” McKeown said. “We thought that was going to be a problem, but they really shut us down. We’ve played really well in this tournament, obviously, or we wouldn’t be here today. But credit to Arizona, they played a great game today.”
It wasn’t because Veronica Burton didn’t try, though. She did everything she could to fill the void for Northwestern from the first bucket to the final horn. Although she averaged only 8.4 ppg over the season, the freshman guard put her mark on the championship game, scoring 16 to lead her team. Pulliam added 14.
The defense that McKeown praised held NU to single digits in the second and fourth quarters. Arizona was able to pull away in the second ten minutes by holding NU to five points while adding 14 to their own total. When half time came around, the UA Wildcats had a 13-point lead.
Arizona would eventually push that lead to 19 in the third quarter, and Northwestern just didn’t have the shooting to come back. They closed the lead to 13 briefly in the fourth, but Arizona was able to push it back out every time NU tried to make a run.
“Northwestern, they’ve been on three road games (in the WNIT) before us,” Sam Thomas said. “We knew they could come back. They’ve come back from many deficits. So, we knew that coming into the third quarter, we had to play hard. And I think we just really did a good job sticking down in the third quarter, keeping the lead we had and not letting them come back.”
McDonald and Reese were joined on the All-Tournament Team by Burton and Pulliam, as well as TCU’s Amy Okonkwo and James Madison’s Jackie Benitez.