Sam Thomas likes to play against Utah. Two years ago, the Arizona Wildcats went to Salt Lake City with an injured Aari McDonald. Thomas set a career high with 31 points against the Utes. On Friday, she set a season high against the same team with 25 points on the way to a 76-64 Arizona win.
“I think my family, the fans, the coaches, my teammates, everybody in the world always wants me to shoot more,” Thomas said. “I mean, it’s been a constant thing my whole time here. So sometimes I do shoot a little bit more. I am trying to shoot more this season.”
The Wildcats used a big second quarter to put distance between themselves and the Utes, but let Utah back into it in the fourth. Arizona was able to regroup and improve to 13-2 overall and 3-2 in Pac-12 play.
Thomas got it started. The senior hit her first three shots—all from 3-point distance—and had 14 points by halftime. In addition to her 25 points on 6-for-9 three-point shooting, she contributed a rebound, two assists, and a block.
“So I think after I hit like my first two, my confidence was up, so I was just able to keep going,” Thomas said. “My teammates kept finding me and they were intentionally looking for me. So I think that’s what really helped.”
It’s something head coach Adia Barnes wants to see more often.
“Sam’s the type of player that if she’s 0-for-3, she’s not going to easily take that fourth, fifth, sixth,” Barnes said. “I ran the first play of the game for Sam...if she just gets confidence. So maybe I’ll have to keep on running the first play for her. But also, as a player, think about it. When you’ve had success and some of your best games against that team, just mentally you’re more aggressive, more prepared.”
After a strong game in Eugene, Ore. on Saturday, Koi Love picked up right where she left off. She provided a big spark off the bench in the first half, scoring eight points, grabbing two rebounds, dishing one assist, and getting a steal in just eight minutes.
“Koi came in the first time, was not on point,” Barnes said. “Came in, settled for a lot of jumpers. Got pulled out. Reset. If you tell Koi exactly what you want, she’s gonna go do it. So I thought she did a tremendous job of resetting herself, and then going back in and doing what we needed and being a huge spark and that’s what she’s been doing. So I’m really proud of her.”
In her first game at McKale since Dec. 9, Lauren Ware had a strong outing. The sophomore post had seven points, seven rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. Her passing may have been the strongest aspect of her game.
“In high school, I was always like the tallest post, so I think I was always getting double teams,” Ware said. “So I think passing is something that I’ve been pretty good at, I just haven’t really had the chance to show it. But this game knowing that they were going to double us, our coaches made a big emphasis that we were going to be able to kick out for open shots and our guards did a good job of moving on the backside. And that’s another thing we emphasize, and they did really well. So it was easy for us to find them on the outside when they were doubling us.”
Freshman Madi Conner got the offense going when Arizona needed a bit of a punch. She played 11 minutes in the first half, contributing seven points on 2-2 shooting from outside. She added an assist and two steals on the night.
Helena Pueyo ran the offense and locked down on defense. The junior had just two points, but added three rebounds, four assists, and a season-high five steals.
The teams played a close first quarter with Utah taking the 17-15 lead, but Arizona put their foot on the pedal in the second with big contributions from Conner and Love. The Wildcats took a 15-point lead into the locker room.
Out of the half, it looked like the Wildcats were going to run away and hide. They pushed their lead to 18 at the 4:54 mark in the third quarter. Then, they seemed to take their foot off the gas.
Utah came rushing back, cutting the lead to nine. A last-second shot by Bendu Yeaney pushed it back to 11 at the end of the third period.
The Utes weren’t done, though. They cut the lead to six twice in the final period before Arizona recovered and closed it out.