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What to know about Arizona women’s basketball for the NCAA Tournament

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 31 Women’s UCLA at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The No. 3-seeded Arizona women’s basketball team will take on No. 14 seed Stony Brook in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday at 11 a.m. PT on ESPN2. The entire tournament is being held in San Antonio this season for COVID reasons.

If you haven’t been following Arizona closely this season or just want a refresher, here is what you need to know about the Wildcats as they try to make a deep run in March.

How did Arizona get here?

Led by UA alum Adia Barnes, who in five years has turned Arizona from Pac-12 bottom-dweller to contender, the Wildcats went 16-5 in the regular season plus Pac-12 Tournament. For the most part they beat who they were supposed to beat and went toe-to-toe with the best teams in the conference. The Wildcats had five wins over ranked teams—UCLA, Oregon (x2) and Oregon State (x2). Four of their five losses were to NCAA Tournament teams—Stanford (x2), UCLA and Washington State. The other defeat was a loss at ASU in the regular-season finale. If not for that and a loss to UCLA in Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, Arizona likely would have been a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats enter March Madness as losers of three of their last four games.

What is the significance of this season?

The Wildcats are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005. They would have been in the Big Dance last year, and maybe even as a higher seed, but it was cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic. That has made them extra motivated this season. While the program is on the rise and should be a fixture in the tournament for years to come, this could be Arizona’s best chance at making a deep run. Three of their five starters are seniors, including Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year Aari McDonald and all-conference defensive wizard Sam Thomas. If the Wildcats are on the top of their game, they are capable of reaching the Final Four.

What are Arizona’s strengths?

The Wildcats have a top-20 defense in the country. They play “Arizona defense”—a relentless full-court press that can be extremely disruptive, especially against teams without good, experienced guards. Arizona is at its best when it’s forcing turnovers and turning them into transition baskets. The Wildcats have plus athletes at every position. Offensively, they lean on lightning-quick point guard Aari McDonald, who has scored in double figures every game of her UA career. She’s one of the best drivers in the country, an improving distributor and a streaky shooter. Good luck stopping her when she gets a head of steam.

What could lead to Arizona’s demise?

Cold shooting. Arizona only ranks 115th in the country in offensive efficiency. Other than McDonald, the Wildcats don’t have any reliable shot creators. They also struggle to hit shots from the perimeter, making just 31.8 percent of their 3s this season. They have really struggled in that department lately, shooting 25 percent or worse from 3 in four of their last five games. When they aren’t hitting shots, defenses pack the paint and make it difficult for McDonald and the posts to get good looks at the rim. That has led to some nasty scoring droughts at times. The Wildcats are undersized in the frontcourt and often get outrebounded. If they lose the battle on the glass and have a cold shooting night, they can lose to anyone.

What does Arizona need to do to make a deep run?

Someone other than Aari McDonald needs to score. Sam Thomas and Helena Pueyo need to be aggressive—and effective—with their 3-point shots. They are above average spot-up shooters who get trigger-shy at times. Arizona needs to find Cate Reese and Trinity Baptiste on the block, and they need to be efficient with their touches and step out and hit a jumper every now and then. Arizona prioritizes transition defense over offensive rebounding, but any second-chance points would be a big bonus. Limiting turnovers is obviously important too. Arizona’s offense isn’t good enough to waste possessions and its defense thrives when opponents have to grind out points in the halfcourt. To the Wildcats’ credit, they have been pretty careful with the ball this season, averaging a hair under 13 turnovers per game.

Roster reference

Starters

  • PG: Aari McDonald, Sr—Undersized guard with elite speed and quickness. Big-time scorer. Great finisher. Tenacious defender. Inconsistent shooter. Underrated rebounder. Will be a top pick in this summer’s WNBA Draft.
  • SG: Bendu Yeaney, Jr.—Hulking strength. Athletic defender and rebounder. OK driver. Inconsistent shooter. Transfer from Indiana.
  • SF: Sam Thomas, Sr.—Super long, active defender. Terrific instincts. Good but selective shooter. Not much of a shot creator.
  • PF: Cate Reese, Jr.—Scrappy but skilled face-up forward. Can extend out to the 3-point line, but is more comfortable operating in the high post. Slightly undersized. Crafty finisher. Arizona’s first McDonald All-American. All-conference player. Double figurer scorer.
  • PF: Trinity Baptiste, Sr.—Bruising 6-foot forward with range out to the 3-point line. Makes up for lack of height with strength and motor. Arizona’s best rebounder. Grad transfer from Virginia.

Key reserves

  • G: Helena Pueyo, So.—Long, skilled guard with a smooth handle and silky jumper. Disappears too often. Hasn’t scored in five games. Spaniard.
  • F: Lauren Ware, Fr.—6-foot-3 forward with soft hands, good touch around the basket and range out to the 3-point line. Not the quickest player, but has good length, bounce and mobility for her size. Volleyball background. Former five-star recruit.
  • G: Shaina Pellington, RS Jr.—Super athletic slasher. Score-first guard. Not much of a shooter. Turnover-prone at times. Oklahoma transfer who was once the Big 12 Freshman of the Year.

End of the rotation

  • C: Semaj Smith, Jr.—Deliberate 6-foot-7 shot blocker. Good rebounder when she gets minutes. Has had a tendency to bring the ball down and get stripped at times.
  • G: Madison Conner, Fr.—Feisty sharpshooter who just enrolled in January. Still finding her way on defense. Arizona native.

Deep bench

  • G: Tara Manumaleuga, So.—Australian sharpshooter. Specializes at spot-ups.
  • G: Mara Mote, So.—Lanky combo guard from Latvia. Also known for her jump shot.
  • C: Marta Garcia, Fr.—Skilled, face-up center but has barely played and is recovering from a leg injury. Spaniard.
  • G:Derin Erodogan, Fr.—Strong combo guard. Turkish.
  • G: Lakin Gardner, Fr.—Walk-on.

The official stat sheet