After being eliminated from the Pac-12 Tournament, the Arizona women’s basketball team has more than two weeks off before March Madness, though “off” is a relative term.
“It’s okay to take a day or two off,” star guard Aari McDonald said, “but we gotta get into the gym and shoot and get better.”
Arizona’s weakness heading into the NCAA Tournament is obvious: cold shooting that leads to costly scoring droughts.
No better example than the third quarter of the Pac-12 Tournament semis. Arizona led UCLA 25-24 with 7:38 left. By the time the period ended, they were trailing the Bruins 38-28. UA missed 10 straight shots to close the quarter. They never recovered.
From this point on, stretches like that will end their season.
“We weren’t able to get stops and scores,” head coach Adia Barnes said. “Or if we got stops we couldn’t score.”
The Wildcats have shot 40 percent or worse in four of their last five games, dropping their offensive efficiency to 119th in the country (their defense is 15th). The one game they did reach that mark—vs. Washington State—they only shot 42 percent.
In that five-game stretch, Arizona has only made 25 percent of their 3-pointers, well below their season average of 31.8, which isn’t even a good rate to begin with. They have also committed at least 15 turnovers in their last three games, about three more than their season average.
Barnes dismissed the idea that the recent struggles are the product of other teams making defensive adjustments.
“No, I don’t see it that way because they’ve done the same thing all year long,” she said. “No one’s changed anything. The consistent thing all year long is not guard certain people. The consistent thing all year long is sometimes they’ll double the post and see if they can turn us over. The consistent thing is all year long is just sag and help. And then, when Aari gets the ball, 10 feet in the paint.”
Barnes said the most important thing to solving that strategy is “us.”
“We can guard people. You saw the way we guarded Stanford, we’ve guarded a lot of top teams. I think the concern for us is not the fact that we can guard people, it’s how our offense is going to flow,” she said. “So for me, it’s getting back to basics of not jumping in the air and passing the ball. When you’re trapped, getting rid of the ball. Those are basic fundamentals that we work on all year, so I don’t know why we weren’t able to do them the last couple of games.”
Barnes has also mentioned altering her substitution patterns to find more combinations that work, such as not playing Bendu Yeaney and Shaina Pellington—two non-shooters—at the same time.
However, Barnes has resisted the idea of adding players into the mix. The rationale: while someone like Mara Mote or Madi Conner can shoot, they aren’t as stout defensively as Arizona’s other guards.
Both did see minutes in the Pac-12 Tournament, though.
“It’s been the same thing the whole year, from day one to the last day, that’s why when people say, ‘Oh, do you want to bring in this or that?’ No, I don’t because what we’re doing is obviously working or else we wouldn’t be second in the Pac-12,” Barnes had said earlier in the week. “So why change that? Doesn’t make sense. That’s why some people don’t coach.”
No matter who plays, they have to take some pressure off McDonald. The All-American guard scored 24 of Arizona’s 49 points against UCLA while also dishing out two of their four assists. (Yes, they only had four assists on 18 made baskets.)
That’s more or less how things went in their final regular-season games, too. It’s not a formula for success. The Wildcats are 2-3 in their last five games.
“We’re not going to win a lot more games if we don’t have balance,” Barnes said. “Shooters have to be ready to hit shots. People have to do their roles. We struggled at times, and credit because it was good defense, but we have to fix that. And we will before the NCAA Tournament. I thought we were passing the ball, we just didn’t convert.”
What might be the most frustrating is the Wildcats have the talent to be better. They just aren’t consist. Example: Trinity Baptiste dropped 17 points in the win over Washington State on Thursday, then was held to five points on seven shots against UCLA a day later.
All-conference talents Cate Reese and Sam Thomas are capable of scoring in double figures every night, but they have struggled to reach that mark lately.
Helena Pueyo, one of the most skilled players on the team, has not even scored in five straight games. Six, if you include the game she missed at ASU due to an undisclosed injury. That might be the most shocking stat of all.
The Spaniard is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter, yet is 2 for 12 over her last eight games. It’s not just that she’s not making them, she’s hesitating to take them. She is averaging just 2.3 3-point attempts per game after averaging 3.7 last season.
Her lack of confidence has mystified her teammates and coaches.
“We run sets for her, she wants to put the ball on the floor first,” McDonald said. “It’s like, hey, shoot it. Just shoot the ball. Just gotta get that through her head. Again, she’s young. But, hey, she’s our best shooter and we need her.
“I tell her all the time to shoot. 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 and keep encouraging her, talking to her, keeping her spirits high.”
Despite having a year of experience under her belt, Pueyo’s scoring average has dipped from 6.7 to 3.6 as a sophomore despite her minutes and role being virtually the same.
Barnes said Pueyo is “fine” physically but conceded whatever injury she is dealing is hampering her “a little bit.” Whatever the issue is, Arizona needs to get her going and needs to do it now.
“We got to get her more shots, but she can’t pass up the shots,” Barnes said. “So I think for us is like her coming off being aggressive. And like we continue to say that too but but we need her to be but she said drivers she’s a facilitator, but we do need her to loosen up the defense.
“I think when you haven’t scored in a couple games, you become more hesitant and tight but she’s a great shooter. Even if she misses three, I’d love for her to take three more. She’s able to take even some contested shots because she’s a great shooter. So we need to get her going and find more shots for her, and we will. And I think the two weeks off will be good for her.”