Lauren Ware squeezed a bounce pass in traffic, took one dribble, and laid the ball high off the glass with her right hand for a layup.
Seconds later, she slid her feet to wall off a drive and used every inch of her wingspan to swat a USC layup attempt. Arizona corralled the blocked shot and flung it forward to Aari McDonald for a transition basket.
Those were two of the many plays Ware made in the second half Sunday to help propel Arizona to a 78-77 comeback win over USC.
They also served as a warning to the rest of the Pac-12.
“She’s going to be a star in our conference,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said after the game. “She’s going to be a key player for us for a long time.”
Just three games into her freshman season, Ware is already making a big impact—quite literally. The 6-foot-5 post is averaging 8.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench while shooting a team-high 58 percent from the field.
She’s also made both of her free throw attempts, only turned the ball over twice, and anchored Arizona’s interior defense by rejecting two shots and altering several others.
Ware had 12 points and 12 rebounds against USC, her first career double-double. Barnes has so much faith in her freshman that she was part of the closing lineup in a one-possession game.
“I’m not surprised at all by how she’s performing in the minutes she’s given,” Barnes said. “She’s so smart. There’s things you can’t teach. Like, I can’t teach her IQ right away. Some of her natural abilities are really helpful. She’s a natural communicator. She’s a freshman and she’s talking like a senior would—and actually more than most seniors would. She picks up offense, she picks up strategy really fast, so we can make adjustments in the game. And most of the time freshmen are lost in those situations.
“She can score around the basket. She still takes some shots off balance, those things are working on every day, so you’ll see that improve, but similar to how when Cate (Reese) was a freshman, you saw improvement on her being stronger and taking better shots. But [Ware] got really tough rebounds in traffic, she altered a lot of shots. She plays so smart and she’s just going to continue to get better and better. I mean, she was huge today. If she doesn’t come out and have her 12 (points) and 12 (rebounds) and give us those key tough rebounds in traffic, we don’t win the game.”
Like Barnes, Ware isn’t surprised by the early success she’s having at Arizona. She was a five-star recruit for a reason.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t have some things to prove.
One, that she has overcome the ACL tear that she suffered in July 2019 and caused her to miss her senior season at Bismarck’s Century High School.
Two, that she could adjust to the size, speed and skill of the Pac-12 after facing what many viewed as weak competition in North Dakota.
But Ware’s knee, protected by a sturdy brace, is “feeling really good” and her play is showing that she’s more than capable of competing at this level.
“Just this whole weekend Lauren has been playing beyond her years,” McDonald said Sunday. “She’s coming in and giving us solid minutes, whether that’s rebounding, getting easy putbacks, being strong with the ball, getting key blocks, so she’s really been playing beyond her years and I’m proud of her for that. That just shows how hard she goes in practice and how determined she is to do good and be great.”
Barnes said Ware’s work ethic is “refreshing” and part of what makes her such a special player. She has marveled at how much Ware has improved since arriving in August.
It helps that Arizona has the kind of depth to challenge Ware in practice and make her earn every minute she plays.
“Coming in right away I was playing against two of the best players in the country—Cate and Trinity (Baptiste) and Semaj (Smith) and all those people,” Ware said. “So just going in and just being competitive in practice makes the game a lot easier.”
Ware is also reaping the benefits of being a one-sport athlete for the first time in her life. Normally she splits time between basketball and volleyball. But when COVID-19 postponed the NCAA volleyball season to the spring, Ware decided to put all of her focus on hoops.
That has given her a rare opportunity to polish parts of her game that she hasn’t always had time to work on—like finishing with her left hand and shooting with more balance.
“It’s helped tremendously,” Barnes said. “I think that’s one of the difference makers, just because she has gotten a chance to learn the system and she’s there with us every day. Now the unfortunate thing is in the future we may not have her in the preseason, which will be tough. I think the thing that would have benefited Lauren even more is (having) 13 (non-conference) games before Pac-12 (play). But I think she’s done a really good job of just of being thrown into the fire. She’s probably never played this much consistent basketball and I think she’s having a lot of fun.”
Indeed. Ware plays with an infectious energy, firing up herself and her team Sunday when her post defense forced USC forward Angel Jackson into a traveling violation.
“This is a really good (situation) for me to work on my fundamentals and my skills and stuff like that because Adia does a good job of that,” Ware said. “So it’s really made me a better player and I’m going to have that experience going into next year, so it’s exciting.”
Assuming next year is normal, Ware is planning to play volleyball in the fall and re-join the women’s basketball team in December once the season concludes. That means she would miss the basketball preseason and most non-conference games.
Eventually, Ware may settle on one sport over the other.
Barnes has said she will support Ware no matter which route she goes, but it’s no secret that she wants the talented freshman in her program full-time.
“I have said this before—she has a chance to be really good and impactful in volleyball and basketball,” Barnes smiled. “But I’m hoping she loves basketball more.”