For the second straight game, Arizona went into a Pac-12 game without two of its starters. Once again, starting point guard Shaina Pellington and starting post Lauren Ware did not step foot on the court. After sneaking out a win at home without them on Friday, the Wildcats’ luck finally ran out as they dropped their first game of the season 76-67 to USC at the Galen Center.
“I thought the intensity was just a step behind the whole game,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “And I thought they did a really good job of jumping on us. It’s uncharacteristic for us to give up like in five minutes, we gave up at one point 15 points, and then the fourth quarter for us to give up 27 points. It’s not Arizona.”
Ware was injured in the early seconds of the Dec. 9 game against North Dakota State. At the time, she was expected to be out one or two weeks with a dislocated knee, but that has stretched into a full month.
Arizona has not commented on Pellington’s absence beyond saying that she’s “just out,” but on Friday night, the point guard’s father posted on social media that she has been feeling ill since Wednesday morning. Barnes expects both Pellington and Ware to return for next week’s games, but she said that the nature of the pandemic means this might not be the only time they are shorthanded. It could be the reality for most teams.
“We have to figure out a way to win because the reality is for the rest of the season, this could be the case,” she said. “Someone could be missing every game.”
Without Pellington, the Wildcats looked out-of-sorts offensively for the second straight game. The team launched 3-pointers, going 27.3 percent on 22 outside shots. Meanwhile, USC was lights-out from outside, going 8 for 14. They also had shortcomings on the defensive end that were exacerbated by the absence of Pellington for the second time this weekend.
“Really important for our style,” Barnes said of Pellington. “ It’s not only offensively...if you look at Washington State it was handling pressure. Shaina’s used to that. She’s a point guard... She’s so athletic. She’s very difficult to trap and she’s very difficult to press. So you don’t see her get pressed a lot because when she gets pushed it goes downhill. Her athleticism poses a problem. I think we’re just a little bit different. You know, Helena (Pueyo), I think has done a really good job. I think Helena has stepped up in a difficult situation and played 34 minutes...She had a huge shot going into half, so I thought she has handled our team well. She had two assists. The second game in a row as a point guard, zero turnovers. So she did her job and she stepped up and did a really good job. We’re different defensively. But there’s no excuse because we have a great defensive system. So there’s no excuse for not being in the right position when we should be. Those are focus things. But yeah, missing Shaina, it’s a lot. She’s one of our best defenders and her and Bendu (Yeaney) together are dynamic and really incredible in the press.”
Pellington’s absence was a blow on the defensive end, as was Ware’s. Pellington is one of Arizona’s best on-ball defenders on the perimeter. Ware is one of their best post defenders. Still, Barnes felt that those who were there should have done better. It wasn’t just about personnel, but about failing to play within the defensive system that they all know.
“We did not play defense the way we do,” Barnes said. “We were not on the ball with intensity. We just weren’t focused. And I think that that happens sometimes. And you know, but you can control those things...But we can always control our defense. And that’s a constant for us and always has been. I think this is one of our poorest defensive games. It’s our poorest defensive game of the season. But you know, I’d say overall, our poorest defensive game in probably three or four years.”
Barnes stated repeatedly that the two missing starters were in no way an excuse for losing the game. As she noted, the Women of Troy were also without a starter.
USC leading scorer Jordan Sanders, who averages 11.9 points per game, did not play for the home team. They responded by coming together as a team, spreading the scoring out. Six players had at least nine points each for the Women of Troy.
Arizona was led by Cate Reese, who tried to will the team to victory with 29 points. She added six rebounds, an assist, a block, and two steals, but she also had seven turnovers.
Yeaney added 12 points, three rebounds, eight assists, and two steals. On the negative side of her ledger were four turnovers and four fouls.
The Wildcats outrebounded USC 36-34, including 14-9 on the offensive boards. The Women of Troy were much more effective after corralling those offensive rebounds, though. They converted on 16 second-chance points to just nine for Arizona.
“On the boards, we were good,” Barnes said. “That’s not usually our strongest area, especially without one of our starting posts. But that tells me we’re not able to convert.”
The Wildcats will be on the road again next week when they hope to play Oregon State and Oregon. The Beavers missed their games this week due to COVID-19 protocols.