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Loss to UCLA ratchets up the pressure on Arizona women’s basketball as USC comes to town

UCLA v Arizona Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

For most of the season, Arizona women’s basketball had far exceeded expectations. Just after the horn sounded at the end of the 2021 national championship game, ESPN left the national runners-up off its “way too early top 25” list. When the Associated Press released its preseason Top 25 in November, the Wildcats sat at No. 22.

Arizona appeared to take the slight personally. The team went out and beat No. 6 Louisville in week one and reeled off 11 wins before taking its first defeat of the season. The Wildcats rose as high as No. 4 in the AP poll over the course of the season.

Then came the lull. The loss to USC in the Galen Center. Yes, it was without two starters, but the problem was more about the team not playing together. That issue cropped up several times in games that either ended up in the L column or were too close for comfort.

After the loss to UCLA on Feb. 24, senior guard Bendu Yeaney met with the media. She expressed frustration with players on the team still not knowing the plays.

“We got one more game left and half our team doesn’t know the plays,” Yeaney said. “So it’s kind of tough to run offense but you don’t know the plays.”

The team has also had some unexplained absences lately. Senior Semaj Smith did not travel to Washington and Washington State with the squad for undisclosed reasons. On Thursday, junior Taylor Chavez was at the game, but she sat on the bench in sweats for unknown reasons.

“Taylor, we decided to keep out today and she’ll be ready for next game,” Barnes said. “And that was mine and Taylor’s decision. It wasn’t a medical decision.”

Now, Arizona sits in a precarious position in regard to its postseason hopes. The Wildcats had an opportunity to move up to No. 3 in the Pac-12 standings with a win over UCLA on Thursday. Instead, they were dominated by the Bruins and remain in fourth place.

Staying in fourth would be difficult enough. The No. 4 seed must face Stanford in the Pac-12 semifinals if it gets that far. More worrisome is the possibility that Arizona could fall to fifth and lose the first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament next week. Losing the bye means the Wildcats would have to win four games in five days to claim the Pac-12 Tournament title.

The Wildcats are a half-game behind both Washington State and Oregon in the standings after their loss to UCLA on Friday. Arizona has played one fewer game in the Pac-12 because neither its home game against Washington nor its road game at California was rescheduled. Both of those teams have two wins in the Pac-12, so they would likely have added two more wins to Arizona’s conference record.

As it currently stands, the Wildcats have a 9-6 record in the conference. That gives them a winning percentage of 60. WSU and Oregon both have 10-6 records, giving them winning percentages of 62.5.

Had Arizona beaten both Cal and UW, it would have a winning percentage of 64.7. With those games off the table, the Wildcats are not only trying to catch the teams ahead of them, but they are also trying to keep Utah from catching them from behind.

If Arizona loses to USC, its winning percentage would fall to 56.25. Utah can improve to 60 with a win over Oregon. While Colorado can tie Arizona’s winning percentage with a victory over Oregon State and an Arizona loss to USC, it would still remain behind the Wildcats because Arizona won the only head-to-head matchup this season.

Another issue for the Wildcats is what kind of impression all of this would leave on the NCAA Tournament selection committee. A loss to USC would give Arizona a 5-5 record over its final 10 games of the regular season including three straight losses to end it. With no guarantees that Cate Reese will return, the committee could decide that this is the team the Wildcats are now and seed them accordingly.

“I honestly haven’t thought about that,” Barnes said. “I haven’t thought about that because I feel like we have to show ourselves, because, in my opinion, if we don’t play with confidence this week, it’s going to be very hard to play good in the Pac 12 tournament and very hard to have momentum for the NCAA. But for the NCAA it’s different. We have more time to practice and get her back, and just time. But I think for us psychologically, not even for the committee—I don’t even think about that stuff because I can’t control it—we just have to do our best and we have to get better right now.”

Whether or not Barnes is thinking about the final impression her team is leaving with the committee, Arizona needs to win games for the sake of its NET. After sitting in the top 10 or just outside for most of the season, the team has dropped to No. 16. If seeding was based exclusively on NET, that would be the final seed that gets to host the early rounds of the tournament. It would be a heartbreaker for the Wildcats to lose out on hosting this season after the pandemic ended that opportunity the past two seasons.

On the positive side, the committee’s two previous top 16 seeding releases had the Wildcats slotted slightly higher than their NET. It would be best to avoid relying on that, though.

“We realize we’ve been saying the same things for the last couple of weeks, so it’s just time to put it all together because it’s time to win,” Yeaney said.

USC (12-14, 5-11) @ No. 12 Arizona (19-6, 9-6)

When and where: The game tips off at 12 p.m. MST on Saturday, Feb. 26 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

TV: The game will air on Pac-12 Los Angeles.

Radio: The radio call by Brody Dryden will be on 1400 AM (KTUC). The broadcast can also be accessed online at The Varsity Network or on the station’s website.

Stats: In-game stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Rankings and ratings: Arizona is ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 11 in the USA TODAY Sports/WBCA poll. The Wildcats are No. 16 in the NET and No. 22 in Her Hoop Stats’ rankings.

USC is not ranked in either major poll. The Women of Troy are No. 74 in the NET and No. 106 in the HHS ranking

Home and away: The Wildcats are 11-1 at home. The Women of Troy are 3-6 on the road.

First meeting: The two teams were scheduled to play during the opening week of Pac-12 play but the Women of Troy had to cancel due to the pandemic. When the game was rescheduled, USC defeated Arizona 76-67. The Wildcats were without Shaina Pellington and Lauren Ware in that game.

Standings: USC is in 10th place in the Pac-12 with a 5-11 record. Arizona is fourth with a 9-6 record.

Projections: Her Hoop Stats gives the Wildcats a win probability of 91 in McKale Center. The model predicts 70.2 points for Arizona and 54.7 points for USC. This model uses machine learning to create its rankings and predictions. It has been trained using statistics that include Reese for the Wildcats.

How to follow: Follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm or on our Facebook page for regular coverage during the week. For live tweets during games and other coverage, follow our deputy editor on Twitter @KimDoss71.