The Arizona women’s basketball team dominated Stony Brook 79-44 on Monday to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where they will face No. 11 seed BYU on Wednesday.
No first-game jitters
Arizona had at least three good reasons to get off to a slow start: they had not played in two weeks, this was their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005, and COVID-19 makes for an unusual postseason environment.
They could have used it as an excuse. Instead, they used it as motivation.
“First NCAA Tournament in a while, so we just wanted to come out, punch the other team in the face and show that they didn’t really have a chance to win,” senior forward Sam Thomas said. “That was our mission.”
Aari McDonald, one of three Wildcats with tournament experience, led the charge early on by scoring seven points to put Arizona up 17-6 midway through the first quarter. Four different Wildcats then fueled a 9-0 run to end the period, putting Arizona up 26-10. Stony Brook trailed by double figures the rest of the way (and by as much as 38).
“I’m really excited by 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.”
Adia Barnes was very pleased how @ArizonaWBB smothered Stony Brook, especially since UA had not played in two weeks and this was their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) March 22, 2021
"I was concerned how we were going to come out...but we handled it like champs." pic.twitter.com/REs97yohU2
The Wildcats played trademark “Arizona defense”
In other words, they overwhelmed the Seawolves with their full-court press. It was a struggle for Stony Brook just to inbound the ball and get up the court. Arizona forced 11 turnovers in the first quarter alone and finished with 25 points off 25 turnovers. Thomas matched her career high with six steals.
“We were trying to play aggressive defense, get in the passing lanes,” she said. “I felt like my teammates were ball-pressuring more, so they were able to get Stony Brook to throw some high lobs, cross-court passes that I was just in the right spot at the right time, and I was able to pick them off.”
Stony Brook coach Caroline McCombs said “the physicality of the game really was like nothing we had ever seen.” Arizona held Anastasia Warren, who had 31 points in the America East championship game, off the scoreboard altogether. The Seawolves only shot 29 percent as a team.
“The last week in practice, I felt like we were just a little bit more focused or hungry. Knew the importance of the tournament,” Barnes said. “I felt that we got better the last two weeks. I think mentally, physically, just as a team, more connected. I really felt that way. And I felt like we started the game like how I hoped we would start the game. So I’m really proud. I mean, our goal was to force them to 25 turnovers. We did that. Our goal was a certain amount of points, we held them under the points we wanted.”
The offense got back on track
Maybe even more impressive is that Arizona turned in its best offensive performance of the year, shooting a season-high 58 percent, including an 8-for-12 mark from 3. It was a strong response from the way the Wildcats ended the regular-season and Pac-12 Tournament when they 42 percent or worse in their last five games.
Arizona was not only hitting shots, but everybody was getting involved. McDonald led the way with 20 points, yes, but Trinity Baptiste matched her season-high with 18 and Cate Reese had 16 points, her most since Feb. 6.
Seven different Wildcats scored in the first half and nine for the game. They had 18 assists on 33 made field goals. That kind of balance can take them a long way.
“I didn’t feel like we performed in the Pac-12 tournament after Washington State the way we should have. I didn’t think we were playing Arizona basketball,” Barnes said. “I wasn’t happy obviously with the loss against UCLA, just knew we had some things to work on. But I felt in the last two-and-a-half weeks, we’ve worked on those things, and we’ve gotten better. I think mentally, physically zoned in, tuned in, ready for the next step. And I saw a different sense of urgency. I saw a different hunger that I didn’t really see in the Pac-12 tournament. But then it was like, ‘how are we going to perform on the floor?’ We came out with a fire intensity, what I expected and what I know we can do every day. So I’m just proud that we were able to do that after two and a half weeks off.”
Helena Pueyo is back on the board
The sophomore snapped a five-game scoreless streak by draining two 3s. One of them was a buzzer beater to cap that first-quarter run. If Arizona is going to make a deep run in this tournament, it needs Pueyo to be aggressive with her shot like she was Monday. The makes will come.
“That’s what we’ve been waiting for all season,” Thomas said. “We need Helena to shoot the ball. As you can see, she’s a great shooter, so we expect that from every game here on out.”
Are Baptiste and Thomas saving the best for last?
Baptiste had a lot to play for Monday. It was her first appearance in the NCAA Tournament and she had family in the stands for the first time this season. They made the trip from Florida.
It was a “big spark,” she said.
Clearly, because in just 21 minutes Baptiste tied her season-high with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. She made both of her 3-point attempts and did the rest of the damage in the paint, outmuscling Stony Brook’s frontcourt.
“We just saw that we have the advantage.” Baptiste said. “We have the advantage everywhere but I think inside definitely. We just had to pound it inside.”
Baptiste relayed a notable stat: the Wildcats are 14-0 when one of their posts scores in double figures. Two did Monday.
“Me and Cate have to be more aggressive and we got to do it consistently,” Baptiste said.
Baptiste may have also found another gear because these could be the last games of her career. She is eligible to return for a super senior season, and while she has not formally announced anything, she said she told her family that “this is it.”
That falls in line with comments Reese made last week when she said this is Baptiste and Thomas’ “last year.” Thomas hasn’t formally made a decision either, but the writing seems to be on the wall.
“Obviously seniors, it could be our last game any day, we were able to get the win this time, but [Baptiste] is just playing like every game’s her last,” Thomas said. “She’s going in there aggressive, aggressive on offense and defense and that’s what we need from her in order to win.”