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Keys to an Arizona win over Stony Brook in NCAA Tournament opener

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Defense is the name of the game for both the Arizona Wildcats and the Stony Brook Seawolves. With two of Her Hoop Stats’ top-35 defenses going at it, what do the Wildcats need to be prepared for to advance to the second round?

“I’m expecting it to be a low-scoring game,” senior guard Aari McDonald said. “We’re both very defensive oriented so it’ll be a low-scoring game, definitely be chippy.”

Stony Brook head coach Carolyn McCombs knows what she has in front of her team and plans to use many of the same tactics that others have used against Arizona. She spoke of defending from the 3-point line down, which Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has referred to as the “10 feet in the paint” approach to defense that has become typical against the Wildcats.

“We definitely have our work cut out for us,” McCombs said. “And have to be strong in all those areas—taking care of the ball and then not letting these scorers get back in transition, so they’re not getting easy scores. And then we want to make it a five-on-five game and make them score over us.”

Forcing Arizona to try to score over the defense has been effective for some of the elite teams on the Wildcats’ schedule. It has been tried by most teams with varying degrees of success, so it is not something Arizona is unprepared for.

“Them siting in the paint, hey, we just have to shoot,” McDonald said. “Let it fly. I don’t really care if my teammates miss it. I just want them to be an offensive threat. So, I mean, we’ll be fine. It’s another game.”

On the defensive end, turning the Seawolves over will be key, as it is in every Arizona game. Stony Brook averages 15.8 turnovers per game, but that has not been against the kind of defense they will face on Monday morning. The Wildcats average 10.5 steals, and that’s just one of the ways they have turned opponents over this year. On average, an Arizona opponent turns the ball over 18 times per game.

The Wildcats also have the kind of on-ball defense that can make it hard on a team that has its own troubles shooting the ball. The Seawolves shoot a crisp 46.7 percent inside the arc, but drop to 26.7 outside.

Whether they are as effective inside against players like Cate Reese, Trinity Baptiste, Sam Thomas and Lauren Ware remains to be seen. Of Stony Brook’s regular starting five, only one is taller than 5-foot-10. That would be forward India Pagan, who is listed at 6-foot-1. The list of reserves is also short on players who are six feet or taller.

On the defensive end, the question for the Seawolves becomes who guards McDonald. While starting point guard Asiah Dingle is very quick, she is one of the few opposing point guards the Wildcats have faced who is shorter than McDonald. Arizona’s star point guard is listed at 5-foot-6; Dingle comes in at 5-foot-4.

The Seawolves do not have the kind of length that some Pac-12 teams have. That makes it less likely that they can place the same kind of pressure on McDonald via either the primary or the secondary defenders. It also means that McDonald will have a better view of the court, making passing easier.

If the Seawolves opt to put someone taller on McDonald, the question becomes whether that player is quick enough to keep up with the Arizona point guard.

McCombs also stressed the need for her team to rebound the ball. Stony Brook has slightly better rebounding numbers than Arizona. Rebounding has never been Arizona’s strength under Barnes.

Once again, though, most of the Seawolves’ games have come in the America East. While Arizona has been outrebounded by mid-majors in the past, it is usually not by enough to make up for the Wildcats’ superiority in other areas of the game.

If games had been played against similar levels of competition, a glance at Arizona and Stony Brook would make one think these were comparable teams. But the Pac-12 is not the America East. Arizona lost only one game to a team that is not in the NCAA Tournament, and that team made the WNIT.

As McDonald said, this should be “just another game” if Arizona plays anywhere close to its potential.