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Arizona women’s basketball starts Paradise Jam with ugly win over Vanderbilt

Big shot at the buzzer by Shaina Pellington makes the difference

Arizona v Connecticut Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The trip to paradise didn’t start out as expected for the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona women’s basketball went into the Paradise Jam heavily favored over Vanderbilt, which had already lost to Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas Little Rock this year. The Wildcats turned the ball over 23 times but snuck out with the 48-46 victory on a heroic shot by senior Shaina Pellington.

“That game was way too close for comfort, but a win’s a win,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said.

Vanderbilt tied the game with four seconds to go. Pellington, who played just 23 minutes, hit the winning shot as time expired. The senior drove to the hoop and shot a reverse layup, then was mobbed by her ecstatic teammates.

“I was just scanning the floor looking at my options,” Pellington said. “And the best option I thought was to take the ball, take it to the hoop and see what I can get at the rim. And I’m glad I was able to come through with that shot at the end.”

The Commodores employed a zone defense that Arizona tried to shoot over, taking several long jump shots that were off the mark. They ended the game 6 for 20 from outside but shot 40.9 percent overall.

The Wildcats’ height advantage was negated by their decision to settle for the outside shot, leading to problems on both offense and the boards. The Commodores outrebounded them 28-19. On the offensive glass, Vanderbilt had a 7-3 edge.

The Commodores also hassled the Wildcats with a press and trapping that frazzled the ballhandlers.

“We were really hesitant on the passes,” Barnes said. “We are usually really good at that. Go middle or go to a certain side we want to and then go and transition to get shots. That’s what I thought we should have done. That’s what we do against zone presses. We’re typically excellent again zone press and excellent against zones, but today we were not and they stayed in the zone literally 40 minutes.”

With their opponent relying on the zone and Pellington saddled with fouls, Helena Pueyo played more minutes than she had all season. The junior led the Wildcats with five assists but also had five turnovers in 30 minutes.

The fouls affected multiple players. In the first half, both Pellington and Cate Reese were forced to the bench early with two fouls. Barnes felt that passiveness played into some of the foul issues.

“I typically don’t have Bendu (Yeaney), Sam (Thomas), Cate and...Shaina with multiple fouls because we usually don’t foul like that,” Barnes said. “I think the main thing is, if we wouldn’t have been on our heels and reacting instead of being the aggressor, we wouldn’t get those kinds of calls. So they had momentum. They were getting calls, but, you see, it’s opposite. Usually, that’s us.”

Thomas led Arizona in scoring with 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting. She also contributed three rebounds, an assist, two steals, and a block while playing a season-high 38 minutes, 15 minutes longer than she had played all season. Her coach found it almost impossible to take her off the floor.

“She has a great poise about her,” Barnes said. “Just a great calming effect and she was excellent. That’s what I want. This is what I want Sam to do every single game and she’s capable of doing it.”

Ariyah Copeland was close behind with 11 points, 6 rebounds, a steal, and a block.

The Wildcats improve to 5-0, but Barnes doesn’t see things getting easier as teams try to make their own reputations by taking out a top 10 opponent much as Arizona was doing just three years ago. DePaul will get the next shot at 1:15 p.m. MST on Friday. The Wildcats must play better if they don’t want to be upset by the Blue Demons.

“They’re not big but they’re strong, aggressive, physical, relentless, and that’s going to be a good test for us,” Barnes said. “So we’re gonna get tested on our transition defense. We’re going to be tested on guarding the three-point line, and we’re going get tested on back cuts tomorrow. If we do those things, though, we have a chance to win. If we don’t, we will not win the game.”