It could well have been the final home game for Arizona women’s basketball this season. If the Wildcats lost to USC, their chance at hosting the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament may have faded, too. With them would have been the chance for the Wildcats’ fans to watch their beloved Sam Thomas play in person at least one more time.
Arizona didn’t let that happen. The Wildcats came back from a slow start to defeat USC 68-59. The victory improved Arizona’s record to 20-6 overall, making Adia Barnes the first head coach in program history to have at least 20 wins in four straight seasons.
Arizona came out looking overmatched. The Women of Troy held the Wildcats to just six points in the first quarter. It looked like it might be a replay of USC’s win in the Galen Center back in early January or of UCLA’s win two days ago.
“I think the players feel a little bit of pressure,” Barnes said. It was a must-win game and I wasn’t gonna sugarcoat it. It was a game we needed to win. It was a game that was really important because we needed to bounce back from Thursday. We got killed. So I think it was a game that we’ve already had one game without Cate (Reese), so let’s adjust. We know we didn’t play the defense and give the effort we wanted to last game. So I think in the beginning, sometimes they’re just a little tight in the sense of knowing we had to win today and our backs were against the wall. But I wasn’t gonna lie and say it wasn’t important because it was important for a lot of different reasons. And I knew psychologically it was important because we’re going to the Pac-12 Tournament, so we can’t perform like we did on Thursday...and think we’re gonna be successful in the tournament. That wasn’t gonna work. So I knew is important for a lot of other reasons like standings, all that stuff. Tournament seeding, all that, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. It was a must-win for us more for getting better and we’re going to play a must-win situation in a couple of days. So we better get used to it now because this is gonna be our world.”
Taylor Chavez and Lauren Ware weren’t going to let Arizona lose.
Chavez was held out the UCLA game on Thursday for undisclosed reasons. The former Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year and preseason member of the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award watch list for the nation’s best shooting guard had appeared in just 20 of Arizona’s 25 games coming into the USC contest. She averaged just 11.4 minutes in those games as she has battled medical issues all season.
“I’ve been lucky to be able to work with Jaime (Fernandez), our strength and conditioning coordinator, as well as (athletic trainer) Jessie (Johnson),” Chavez said. “They’ve done a great job helping me just get through the ebbs and flows of the season. And it’s a long season, so there’s just a lot of ups and downs and just kind of staying focused and trying to get through these things as they happen. And for the most part, things like concussion or my hip issue...is out of my control, so I just try to do as much preventative stuff for that as I can.”
On Saturday, Chavez got the opportunity to show why all of those accolades came her way. The guard subbed in during the second quarter and had her very own seven-point run to cut the USC lead from nine to just two. Her run came on two 3-point shots, including an and-1 that sent her to the line for the four-point play.
Chavez ended the game with 18 points which was a season high. She shot 5 of 9 from the field, including 5 for 7 from 3-point distance. She added two assists and two steals.
Arizona got murdered on the boards against UCLA. Ware seemed to take that to heart. She battled for rebounds all game, ending with a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double.
The Wildcats also got double-digit contributions in points from Thomas and Shaina Pellington. Pellington added 14 points, three rebounds, four assists, and two assists while committing no turnovers. Thomas tossed in 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and two steals.
The players made changes, but so did the coaches. Barnes went away from her defensive coaching philosophy. She had to let go of her attachment to player-to-player defense. Switching to zone was the Wildcats’ only answer to USC’s dynamic freshman Rayah Marshall.
“If we wouldn’t have went to the zone, we wouldn’t have won the game,” Barnes said. “Because we could not stop Marshall, and the zone saved us...I’m not a zone coach. Might play a little bit more zone now because of our personnel. You gotta do what you gotta do to win...but that’s really not my philosophy as a coach to sit in a zone.”
The defense will be even more important for Arizona going forward as Barnes tries to figure out the half-court offense.
“If we’re gonna sit in the halfcourt and just run offense and think we’re gonna win games, that’s not how we’re gonna win,” Barnes said. “It’s just not who we are right now. We can evolve into that, and we have some time, but that’s not who Arizona is today. So the way we’re gonna win is changing the defense, being aggressive, being able to play different defenses. We have to win and that was a difference today. And sometimes that’s hard, but we’re focused and we’re able to do that, but we’re not going to win if we don’t do that. If we can’t sit down people, if we can’t manufacture points of our defense. We’re not good enough in the halfcourt right now.”