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Arizona survives vs. BYU to reach first Sweet Sixteen since 1998

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

It doesn’t have to be pretty. You just need to win. Survive and advance. Whatever cliche you want to use, it was applicable to Arizona’s 52-46 victory over BYU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“The last minute-and-a-half was pretty long,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “I was like, ‘This is a long last minute.’ I was getting hot. I had to pull off my jacket—at least I didn’t throw it. It was just surreal because it was so tight. We came up with some big plays and just those last seconds, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! We’re going to the Sweet 16! We got this game!’ Just excited. So happy for our players.”

After an explosion of offense in the opening round, Arizona’s offensive doldrums returned at the worst possible time. Long scoring droughts. Missed free throws. It looked like the 11th-seeded Cougars might be on their way to another upset.

Heroics down the stretch by Aari McDonald, Sam Thomas and Helena Pueyo turned them back. With Arizona trailing 43-39, McDonald scored 10 points over the final 4:40 and ended the night with a double-double, with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

“I had to lock in,” McDonald said. “Personally, in the first half, I feel like I did not help my teammates. I was not a threat on the defensive end, I did not cancel out Shaylee Gonzales like I wanted to. Credit to her, she’s a great player. So second half, I just had to tell myself, ‘Hey, you got to take it personal. She’s not gonna score. You don’t even let her touch the ball.’ I really wanted the game. I know my teammates did and my coaches, so I had to buckle down and take pride.”

Pueyo only had two points, but they were big ones. She put the Wildcats up 47-43 with a pull-up jumper with 2:53 to play. Thomas had seven points, five over the final 3:43 including a critical 3. She also had 5 rebounds, 2 blocks and 3 steals.

“They hit them when we needed them,” McDonald said. “And so I’m gonna keep encouraging them to shoot and just stay in their heads, but we definitely needed those baskets and, hey, I’m proud of those two.”

Trinity Baptiste scored 6 points and had 11 rebounds, while Cate Reese scored 12 and pulled down 5 boards, keeping the Wildcats afloat with some big third-quarter buckets.

The 11 boards from both Baptiste and McDonald were huge. They were also unusual for an Arizona team that was outrebounded by Stony Brook in the first round. This time, they tied BYU with 38 total rebounds apiece and grabbed 14 offensive rebounds to the Cougars’ 9.

“It was intentional,” McDonald said. “Knowing the scout, BYU is a great offensive rebounding team, and even the guards crash, so it was intentional to rebound. Hit and get. And so I think we really locked in on the defensive end and had to get rebounds. And so I’m proud, because usually we struggle with that.”

Barnes was reflective about what it meant to watch it from the sidelines. She said she thought it was more rewarding as a coach than when she was a player because she understood more about what goes into it, but it was especially rewarding because these players—from the starters to the bench—rebuilt Arizona.

“It means so much,” she said. “I mean, it starts with Aari. Sam made some big plays, Cate was big, Trinity got in foul trouble, but then she made big plays down the stretch, just everybody, and remember this is uncharted territory for our program. We haven’t ever been here, and I was here as a player 20-some years ago, and you know that’s the last time the program had been there.”

Arizona only shot 36 percent, including 5 for 19 from 3 and 5 for 13 from the free throw line, but held the Cougars to 35 percent shooting.

“This win means a lot, and this is why I came back,” McDonald said. “I wanted to do something special with my teammates in a tournament because we got the opportunity taken away last year. And so, that made us hungry coming in. And everybody counted us out, but we believe as a unit, our little circle. Arizona, our program we believe in, so that’s all that matters. And we have the confidence so we’re going to keep rolling.”