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NCAA Tournament: Healthy Arizona women’s basketball tries to put it all together for another run

USC v Arizona Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

As Arizona women’s basketball entered the Pac-12 Tournament last season, the team was not playing its best basketball. It came back to haunt the Wildcats in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament when they were dismissed by UCLA. This year was even worse, Arizona struggled to score in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament and went out to Colorado in the quarterfinals. Head coach Adia Barnes thinks that the team has moved past the rough patch, just as they did last season. Besides, this time, they don’t have to go to a neutral court and play in almost empty gyms in San Antonio.

“At home, we’re better,” Barnes said. “Everybody’s better at home. So I like any matchup at home.”

There are specific aspects of the Wildcats’ game that she likes. Barnes thinks the team is past its poor offensive performance against the Buffaloes and will be themselves on that end of the court again.

“ I think that a couple of reasons why it wasn’t good (against Colorado),” Barnes said. “Typically, like last year we didn’t shoot the ball as well percentage-wise or just personnel-wise but then we killed zone offense, zone defenses. I think what made it hard for us was adjusting to Cate (Reese being) gone, not having a presence inside. We had a guard playing the 4. And then going 2-24 from the 3, which won’t happen. We’re typically 36, 37 percent. So I don’t think that will happen again. I think a lot of those shots will fall. We had open good looks and they just could not fall. But I think learning that then you don’t have to live and die by a 3. Learning to move the ball and get a layup, I think we’ve learned a lot and worked a lot against that for now because I know that we’re going to be zoned.”

The Wildcats also need to have more players step up on that end of the floor. Barnes noted that Aari McDonald took her game to an even higher level in last season’s tournament. Shaina Pellington had some of her best games in an Arizona uniform once March Madness started. They need that again this season.

One player that stepped up in Reese’s absence was Lauren Ware. Can she maintain that now with Reese back?

“Obviously with Cate coming back it’s going to help us a lot offensively and defensively, but I don’t really think that changes what I am going to do from here on out,” Ware said. “So I think I just need to stay aggressive and stuff like that and Cate’s going to help me with that as well because she opens the floor a lot for us because she’s a big target on the inside. People are going to defend her really tough. So I think that will help me a lot as well and help me stay aggressive too.”

On defense, Barnes doesn’t think UNLV has seen a team like Arizona so far this season. That will play into the Wildcats’ favor against a young Lady Rebels group.

“I don’t think they faced anybody with our kinds of pressure,” Barnes said. “I think that we have a little bit more size inside, and so I think it’s going to be a good matchup. By no means do I think that we’re way better and should win, by no means. I think they’re a very good team and very capable of beating anybody.”

UNLV’s youth factor also plays into Barnes’ assessment of the game. The Lady Rebels are in their first NCAA Tournament in 20 years. Arizona had a similar experience and went to the finals last season, but now Barnes believes that experience will help her team.

“I think that UNLV is better than the 13 seed,” Barnes said. “I think they’re very good. I think they have a lot of new players. But they’re not experienced in the NCAA setting and some of our players are. Our whole team isn’t either, but our core players, they played in a championship game, so I think that’s going to be very valuable in March Madness.”

That youth is on the mind of Arizona’s players, as well. Sam Thomas is well-acquainted with UNLV because her sister Jade is a sophomore guard and captain on the team.

“I’ve probably watched every single one of their games this year that we weren’t playing,” Thomas said. “So just knowing that they’re pretty young, they’re a new team, obviously. I think that they have like seven or eight new players on the team...So just knowing that...they’re coming in hungry, they know they have nothing to lose, they have a lot of connections to Tucson, so there’s probably going to be a lot of people here cheering for them as well.”

Those UNLV connections to Tucson range from head coach Lindy La Rocque being the goddaughter of the late Lute Olson and lifelong family friend of Arizona men’s basketball associate head coach Jack Murphy to forward Khayla Rooks being the daughter of the late Wildcat star Sean Rooks to freshman Alyssa Brown being a former standout for Sahuaro High School on Tucson’s eastside. If the Lady Rebels were not going to be playing in their home gym, playing in Tucson was probably the next best thing.

“Well, it’s funny because just driving up here, I’m like, in a lot of ways this feels like home too because I’ve been here so much, where they’re like ‘no, down this hallway,’ and I’m like, ‘no, I know where I’m going,’” La Rocque said. “I didn’t say that, but it’s, I’m comfortable here. You guys have great hospitality. I love the people here, the history, the tradition. I think it was really cool to walk in with Khayla today because that adds just another level of, a layer of feeling, which is really cool. But, yeah, I mean, I’m excited to be here. I have a lot of really, really good memories and so I’m keeping that with me.”

Ultimately, though, this is Arizona’s gym that is typically full of almost 8,000 ardent supporters and will likely have even more for the first home NCAA Tournament games since 1998. That’s one thing that most women’s teams (and even many men’s teams) never have to face. Barnes likes their chances.

“Most teams aren’t prepared to play in front of 12-, 13-, 14,000 people,” Barnes said. “And that’s how many we’re going to have. It’s a very tough environment. It’s very hard to play here, and we know that. And that’s an advantage for us. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Yes, we love playing at home. Do we play better? Absolutely. But most teams across the country shoot a better percentage from the three and two at home, and we do too. So I’m happy we’re home. I’m extremely excited. And to host the first two rounds, it’s a blessing for us. So we do not take that lightly and I think it’s going to be fun.”