Arizona head coach Adia Barnes and her players had been urging the Wildcat faithful to fill McKale on Feb. 4 since minutes after the team lost at Oregon three weeks ago. That message was heard loud and clear by 10,413 fans who packed the arena into the upper bowl.
It was a successful white-out. The McKale Center crowd set a program record for the most fans to watch a regular-season women’s basketball game at Arizona. The team came through and improved its record to 16-3 overall and 6-3 in conference play. The Wildcats now sit in third in the Pac-12 standings, one game behind Oregon and with the current tiebreaker over Washington State.
“We definitely had something to prove, obviously, because we lost to them the last matchup,” senior point guard Shaina Pellington said. “But kind of just to feed off of what Adia said, we just wanted to take this game and just execute the game plan.”
They did for part of the game, but Barnes didn’t feel like it was a complete effort.
“It’s not where we want to be,” she said. “I thought we did a lot of things good. I thought we did a lot of things that weren’t good. It wasn’t our best defensive game by far. You will see a better team in March.”
Still, it was a dominant win over the team that currently sits second in the Pac-12 standings. It was also proof that the Wildcats could rise to the occasion.
After the drama both on and off the court when the two teams met in Eugene, there was a lot riding on the rematch. The “white-out,” the desire to prove a point both to themselves and to Oregon, the drive to protect their coach were all part of the hype. Was there any fear that it would be too much?
“No,” Barnes said. “If it is, we’re not good. So, my opinion, if we can’t come and produce under the bright lights or when there’s pressure, then we’re not gonna do well in the tournament. So I think that most of the players here, they played in the championship game, which was a lot more pressure.”
It wasn’t a consistent effort, but it was a team effort from the Wildcats. Arizona got points from nine players and saw all 15 enter the game before the final horn.
Cate Reese led the team with 13 points, but the Wildcats got a big boost from the bench. The reserves contributed 25 of the team’s 63 points.
Koi Love entered and gave Arizona a spark in the first half. Love ended with eight points, nine rebounds, and three assists. She was joined by Helena Pueyo who had eight points, one rebound, four assists, a block, and a steal.
“We know that defensively we can’t let any of their best players have their best game.” Love said. “So I just took my matchup personally. Whoever was in front of me. to try my best to slow them down, stop them, make them uncomfortable.”
Barnes said that she felt the team played well for about 20 of the 40 minutes. The first half was close. Arizona went into the locker room with a six-point lead. Could they hold it this time after letting a 17-point lead slip at Oregon last month?
The Wildcats didn’t just hold it, they kicked it into gear in the third quarter. It started with Sam Thomas hitting her first shot of the game—a 3-pointer to put Arizona up by 9 about a minute into the second half. They didn’t let up, outscoring the Ducks 21-11 to go up by 16 at the end of the third quarter.
Still, Arizona had a double-digit lead going into the fourth in Matthew Knight Arena and let it get away. They weren’t going to let go in front of their own fans, though.
It didn’t hurt that Nyara Sabally—the only player the Wildcats couldn’t seem to contain in either game—had to leave the court several times with what looked like a stomach ailment. Sabally played sparingly in the second half after scoring 11 in the first half. She ended the game with 15.
“(Sabally) knows how to use her body extremely well,” Pellington said. “She keeps the ball high which makes her hard to stop because of how tall she is. So you know, she’s a phenomenal player. She’s going to be somebody who we will potentially see in the long run, maybe in the tournament.”
In Sabally’s absence, Endyia Rogers led the Ducks with 17 points. The USC transfer was essentially all Oregon had once Sabally left the court. Twelve players saw the floor for the visitors, but four didn’t score at all and four more scored no more than two points. Other than Rogers and Sabally, the Ducks’ big scorers were Te-Hina Paopao and Phillipina Kyei with five points each.
As in the game in Eugene, Oregon’s scoring was helped tremendously by free throws, which provided just over 29 percent of the Ducks’ points. The visitors went to the line 18 times and hit 14 of those foul shots while the home team connected on four of their five free throws. While the percentage was much better, that was even fewer foul shots than the Wildcats were awarded in Eugene when Oregon outshot them 26 to 10 from the charity stripe.
Arizona was able to overcome the free throw disparity by getting 22 points off 21 Oregon turnovers. The Wildcats also got eight second-chance points from eight offensive rebounds.
Arizona went up by as many as 21 in the second half before Barnes emptied her bench.