LAS VEGAS — Arizona got the payback that star guard Aari McDonald said they were looking for when they took California out in the quarterfinals on Friday. A win in the semifinals wouldn’t be about payback. It would be about shocking the college basketball world.
The Wildcats will take on the top-seeded Oregon Ducks Saturday at 7 p.m. MST. That’s not just the top-seeded team in this tournament. That’s the team that’s battling to be the overall No. 1 seed on Selection Monday.
After falling victim to two upsets the final two weeks of the regular season, it would be quite a story if Arizona could be the one inflicting the upset this time around. It will be very difficult, but it’s certainly not unheard of. The Wildcats will only need to look at the opposing bench to see players who have pulled off such a feat.
In 2017, Oregon went to the Pac-12 Tournament—then held in Seattle’s Key Arena—and found themselves facing the third-seeded Washington Huskies on home soil. The Huskies had Kelsey Plum, that season’s darling of the basketball world. They also had the great Chantel Osahor and a young McDonald in her only season at Washington.
The Ducks had amassed a record of 8-10 in conference play and entered the game 19-12 on the season. The previous year, they lost in the semifinals of the postseason WNIT. It was one of a few WNIT appearances they had over the previous decade, but they hadn’t appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2005.
On the other bench were the Huskies, just a season removed from a Final Four run. They were looking for a big send-off for Plum, the newly-minted top scorer in NCAA history and the soon-to-be top pick in the WNBA draft.
To everyone’s shock, it was the Ducks who pulled off the win, upsetting the 27-4 Huskies in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament by a score of 70-69. Freshmen Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard had big games with Ionescu playing all 40 minutes.
Oregon head coach Kelly Graves still thinks of that game. It’s what jump-started a big NCAA run that year, he noted.
Fast forward three years. It’s the Arizona Wildcats coming off a deep run in the WNIT, in their case a championship. They are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, having made only one other WNIT appearance in the interim.
On the other bench, the Ducks are coming off a Final Four run and have this season’s darling of the women’s basketball world. Ionescu is the first player to ever have 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists over her career. She has more triple-doubles than anyone in history. She is the presumptive top pick in this spring’s WNBA draft. And she talks of “unfinished business.”
What are the chances? Not good, but if you look hard enough maybe there’s a chance.
“We handled Arizona pretty well at home in our last game,” Graves said. “They gave us — they were a handful at their place. You know, we have seen both against Arizona. They’re going to be fired up. And I’ll tell you, I thought they looked good tonight. We better be ready mentally, we better be ready physically this time of year.”
Two days prior to that game in Tucson, the Ducks had been beaten by Arizona State. On Friday, they had a 20-point win over the eighth-seeded Utah Utes, but it wasn’t the kind of dominant performance that people have become used to seeing from them. In fact, the Utes led 19-16 at the end of the first quarter.
“Happy for the win,” Graves said. “A little displeased on how we played. I thought we were inconsistent at times in our effort and our execution. We still won the game. I thought after that first quarter had it under control the whole time. We just didn’t have that killer instinct tonight and we didn’t put them out when we had a chance.”
It’s not much, but it’s something for the Wildcats to put their faith in.
“We go into the game with zero pressure,” Adia Barnes said. “And I’ll tell you, it is hard to play teams with zero pressure.”
How to watch
The Wildcats and Ducks will meet at 7 p.m. MST on Saturday, March 7. The game will be aired on all Pac-12 Networks, including Pac-12 Arizona and the national Pac-12 Network feed.