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UCLA stymies Arizona in Pac-12 Tournament semifinals

Arizona’s Aari McDonald dives for a loose ball.
Photo courtesy of the Pac-12 Conference

LAS VEGAS — In the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals, the Arizona Wildcats told a story about what they can do with superior defense and just enough offense. In the semifinals, that story reverted to one that has become too familiar of late: what happens with superior defense and bad offense.

It cost the Wildcats their first trip to the Pac-12 Tournament finals since 2004 as the UCLA Bruins defeated them 58-49.

“We struggled,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “I thought both teams, solid defensively. Just the way the game was, it was extremely physical, which I thought it was good.Both of our percentages were really bad. They’re very similar. If you look at UCLA from the field, 33 percent. We’re 32. I thought both of us struggled from the 3-point line. They shot more free throws. I think that was one of the biggest differences, but I feel like the rebounding at times, I know they were only plus-6, but the times and manners they got them really hurt us.”

As is usually the case when the Wildcats struggle offensively, Arizona had difficulty finding more than one or two offensive weapons. After a complete team game on Thursday, they could not find the same kind of offensive cohesiveness on Friday.

Aari McDonald did what she has done since she stepped foot on the court in an Arizona uniform: she tried to will her team to victory, putting everything on the line until the final buzzer. She scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out two assists and had two steals.

“It was a tough game,” McDonald said. “It was a physical game. We were getting the stops, (but) going in scoring droughts didn’t help. Crucial rebounds, not stopping the ball. Gotta go back to the drawing board. We have three weeks until the postseason. So we’ve got to get better.”

Cate Reese added eight ponts, but she was the only other player in the neighborhood of double digits for Arizona.

Helena Pueyo had six rebounds, but she did not score for the fifth straight game. McDonald noted that Pueyo seems to want to put the ball on the floor and dribble instead of taking shots.

“I tell her all the time to shoot,” McDonald said. “Nobody is going to be mad at her for shooting if she misses. We’ll take it. She’s our best shooter. We need her to be an offensive threat at all times.”

The first half was ugly. Arizona turned the ball over 10 times. The Wildcats shot just 27.3 percent. They were losing the rebounding battle by three. The leading rebounders were McDonald and Pueyo, two guards.

The only thing keeping them in it was the fact UCLA couldn’t shoot, either. The Bruins connected on just 32.3% of their shots in the first half.

It would not improve much in the second half. Both teams ended the game shooting less than 33 percent, but the Bruins were able to take advantage of their trips to the free throw line and superiority on the boards to maintain their lead for three-quarters of the game.

Arizona cut UCLA’s 10-point lead to two points with just over a minute to go in the game, but could not get closer.

It was not how the program’s most decorated player wanted to end her Pac-12 career, but she held out hope for what still lies ahead for them in the NCAA Tournament.

“It sucks,” McDonald said. “Being a competitor, you don’t want to lose. You want to play hard for 40 minutes but it sucks, especially since this is my last go-round. But I’m proud of my team for fighting all the way, just wasn’t there yet. Lack of focus for some plays, but we’ve got to get better.”