It was a long time coming. Sixteen long years, made longer by the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Arizona Wildcats wasted no time making up for those lost years, defeating Stony Brook 79-44 in their first tournament game since 2005.
Arizona will face 11-seed BYU in the second round on Wednesday.
“I’m really excited the way our team competed today,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “The way we came out ready, fearless, aggressive defense. I thought we never really let Stony Brook get into their offense. We hadn’t played for two-and-a-half weeks, so I was concerned about how we’re going to come out. Are we gonna be too nervous? This is our first time in the tournament. This is uncharted territory, but we handled it like champs.”
UA’s depth was too much for Stony Brook. Speed. Shooting. Swarming defense. It was something the Seawolves had not faced regularly this season with only one contest against a major-conference opponent.
By halftime, nine players had appeared for Arizona. Eight of them had scored. They were up by 27. Eventually, every one of UA’s 13 available players would get time in the program’s first tournament appearance since most of them were pre-schoolers.
As a team, the Wildcats shot a season-high 57.9% from the field and 66.7% from 3. They turned the Seawolves over 25 times and scored 25 points off those turnovers.
All of Arizona’s starters and key reserves contributed with key stats in different aspects of the game.
Aari McDonald led the way with 20 points on 8-14 shooting. She went 2-5 from beyond the arc and added four assists and three steals.
Trinity Baptiste got things started for the Wildcats and helped carry the load throughout. She ended the day with 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting, including 2-2 from 3-point distance. She added six rebounds and two steals.
Cate Reese was right there with McDonald and Baptiste, scoring 16 points. She added six rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
“We saw that we had the advantage,” Baptiste said. “We have the advantage everywhere, but I think inside, definitely. We just had to pound it inside. And we talked about how we’re 14-0 when the post players score double figures, so I think that me and Cate have to be more aggressive and we’ve got to do it consistently.”
Helena Pueyo emerged from her shooting slump by going 2-3 from 3-point distance. Her six points went along with six rebounds, an assist and a block, but she also had three turnovers.
The turnovers were a concern for the entire team, which turned the ball over 14 times. That is above their season average of 12.9 turnovers per game.
Bendu Yeaney led the Wildcats with six assists. She also had three steals, a block and two rebounds to go with four points. The assists and steals were both season highs.
Sam Thomas was the usual defensive disruptor with six steals to go along with several deflections. The steals tied her career high.
“We were trying to play aggressive defense, get in the passing lanes,” Thomas said. “I felt like my teammates were ball-pressuring more so they were able to get Stony Brook to throw some high lob cross-court passes that I was just in the right spot at the right time that I was able to pick them off.”
The Wildcats stagnated in the third quarter when McDonald went to the bench, allowing Stony Brook to go on an 8-0 run over the final 4:19. By that time, the game was well out of reach.
That time on the bench was used liberally by Barnes. None of the five starters played more than 29 minutes, and only Thomas and Reese played more than 25.
Asiah Dingle led Stony Brook with 14 points, but the Wildcats held Anastasia Warren to no points on 0-6 shooting. Warren had 31 in the Seawolves’ AEC Tournament final victory.
“It was great,” McDonald said. “Got the jitters out. I’m proud of my teammates today, how we played. We had a little drop-off in the third quarter, but I’m extremely proud and we’ve got to just cherish the moment right now because we’ve got to grind it out again in a couple of days.”