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Arizona and Indiana both hope defense opens door to Final Four

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Texas A&M v Arizona Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Arizona (19-5) and Indiana (21-5) have a lot in common.

Two schools best known for men’s basketball and a legendary coach they have tried to replace. Two schools that, until two weeks ago, employed a member of the Miller family to coach those men. Two women’s teams that had never been beyond the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Winners of the last two WNIT championships. And two coaches using almost the exact same script in their press conferences leading into the Elite Eight.

Our defense creates our offense.

Others may not believe, but our team believes.

Those were the talking points for both Arizona head coach Adia Barnes and Indiana head coach Teri Moren on Sunday morning.

“We’re not afraid of anybody and we play hard,” Barnes said. “We play 110 percent at all times, and we play with passion and grit and we’re tough. So we’re not afraid, so we just go out and play. I don’t feel like we had pressure (against Texas A&M). We know that everybody’s good this time of year. We know that no one expected us to be here, so just go out and play. There’s nothing to lose... They don’t give you a medal for the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and just making the tournament, so we want to go do something special. We believe that we can do that.”

Just 30 minutes earlier, Moren spoke on the same themes.

“We have a bunch of believers in our locker room with all 32 of us there on this trip,” Moren said. “We all believe that we’re a good basketball team, and when we dig our heels in defensively we hope to make other teams uncomfortable and we hope to make it difficult for them to score. And then on the flip side of that, we want to get downhill we want to play fast. And that’s who we are. I keep saying that’s who we are. That’s how we practice every day. We know that we have some limitations, but we figure out other ways to be successful.”

Moren had a similar breakdown of Arizona.

“Their defense really impresses me,” she said. “I mean they’re trying to really turn you over. I think they’re forcing 18 turnovers. Last night Texas A&M had 19 of those. And so I think that’s the first thing that sticks out.... I think (Arizona’s) coach has made it clear that they know that they have some limitations offensively, as well, so they really got to hang their hat on the defensive end, and so that’s why they’re super aggressive.”

Moren felt that Arizona’s ability to create turnovers might not be as effective against Indiana, a team that averages just 11.2 turnovers per game.

Barnes believes that there is still a good possibility that the Wildcats can force turnovers despite the Hoosiers’ past success. She has the same plan she has had for weeks: play “Arizona defense.”

“I think just us playing solid defense, not letting them get into their action easily (can force turnovers),” Barnes said. “Pressuring the ball, containing one-on-one. Those things I think we’ve had success turning people over. But when we haven’t turned people over a lot we’ve been pretty solid in our transition defense and our halfcourt defense. So, definitely have to play the pressure we’ve been playing. It’s gotten us this far and it’s been pretty successful.”

That defense will need to put pressure on Mackenzie Holmes, Grace Berger and Ali Patberg. The group of three each averages in double digits. Holmes scores 17.7 PPG, Berger is at 15.4 PPG, and Patberg is good for 14.1 PPG.

That’s not where the offense ends, though. The Hoosiers have two more who score just under 10 points per game, Jaelyn Penn is at 9.5 PPG, while Aleksa Gulbe gets 9.2 PPG.

Like Arizona, Indiana is not great at shooting the 3. In fact, they’re much worse.

The Wildcats shoot 33.4 percent from outside, while the Hoosiers are at 28.6 percent. Arizona hits 6.1 3-pointers per contest; Indiana makes just 4.3, which ranks in the bottom 15 percent of Division I.

Where the Hoosiers are superior is on the boards. Indiana grabs 39.1 rebounds per game, fitting comfortably in the top 37 percent of college basketball. The 36.6 Arizona grabs ranks in the bottom 46.

One advantage Arizona has is a bit of an insider’s perspective on Indiana. Junior transfer Bendu Yeaney left Bloomington last year after her first attempt at a junior season. A terrible injury to her Achilles in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament brought her basketball career to a screeching halt.

Yeaney tried to come back in January 2020, but she played just a handful of games before the injury forced her to shut down again. Shortly afterwards she announced that she would transfer.

“March 24, 2019... I use to remember this day as the day I (tore) my Achilles,” Yeaney wrote on Twitter. “My life was put in perspective for me. I am just very blessed/grateful to be in the position to play this game I love But from now on I remember this day as the day we made it to the sweet 16.”

Both Yeaney and Moren played down the importance of the matchup, but Barnes wasn’t so sure it was “just another game” as both of them claimed. She just wants to avoid making the occasion too big for her junior guard.

“I haven’t talked to her a whole lot about Indiana, because I want her to just focus and have fun and do her thing,” Barnes said. “But we know Indiana is a really good team so we’re doing our own work as a staff and preparing, but you know we’re excited and I think for her playing against her former team is obviously... players always get excited to play against their former teams or who recruited them. That’s just the way kids are, but Bendu’s been amazing for us.”

The Wildcats are getting contributions from new sources, too. Before the season started, Barnes was excited about the possibilities of McDonald and Shaina Pellington in the backcourt together. She talked about how Pellington was one of the few players as quick as McDonald.

It did not work out as expected during the regular season. Pellington seemed to be trying to take too much on by herself. She often forced things and ended up turning the ball over or taking wild shots. Before long, she had lost her starting position to Yeaney.

But Pellington has been key in the postseason. She has not turned the ball over more than once per game since the Feb. 28 loss to Arizona State, and she had no turnovers in the Pac-12 semifinal loss to UCLA. Her scoring is going down, but she is working within the flow of the game more.

The most important result of that is that she is facilitating more for others, including McDonald. Pellington had three assists against both Texas A&M and Stony Brook. Prior to that, she only had three or more assists twice all season.

“Shaina is understanding how she can help us, and she’s putting the team first,” Barnes said. “I don’t know many people in the country that can guard her going downhill. So she’s done a great job. She gives us another ball handler, another defender, someone who can create their own shot one-on-one. She’s done a great job of finding Aari in the corner, finding Sam, finding Helena. So she’s been really great and I think she has played some of her best basketball. I saw this start in the Pac-12 tournament. She’s taken it to another level knowing what she needs to do as a point guard to help our team be successful, and she’s done that, so I’m happy for her.”

To Barnes’ point that the turnaround started in the Pac-12 Tournament, Pellington has a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio in those five games. In the 19 regular-season games, she had just .73 assist per turnover.

McDonald is happy for her teammate and the effect it has on her own game.

“Shaina has elevated her game to another level,” McDonald said. “She’s a competitor. She helps me a lot defensively. Offensively she can create for herself but also create for us. And like Coach said, when we’re hitting shots, we spread the floor and Shaina’s able to get drives. She’s been really valuable to us right now and she needs to keep it up. I don’t know what she ate yesterday or for this tournament, but she needs to keep it up. She’s playing amazing right now.”

The computers love the Hoosiers. The NET ranks them No. 9 in the country as does Her Hoop Stats. The stats service gives Indiana a 66.5 percent probability of beating Arizona on a neutral court.

Those rankings may be more unreliable this season given the peculiarities of the pandemic, though. After all, the NCAA’s tool ranked Oregon No. 10. Her Hoop Stats ranked them even higher, placing them at No. 7 and giving them a 75.1 percent probability of defeating the Wildcats on a neutral court. When the two teams faced each other on a real court, Arizona defeated Oregon by 16 in Tucson and 20 in Eugene.

The numbers certainly thought Texas A&M would beat Arizona. The Aggies were No. 11 according to the NET. Even after being defeated by the Wildcats last night, they are at the same No. 11 position according to Her Hoop Stats with a 59.5 percent win probability if they were to face Arizona again.

The Wildcats have used the “no one believed in us” rallying cry to great effect for the past week. At least it’s accurate as far as the computers go.

On Monday, they will once again enter the Alamodome and use that rallying to try to take another step into history.