Slow starts have plagued the Arizona Wildcats more times than they care to admit this season. The opening round of the NCAA Tournament was no different. The Wildcats had to overcome 20 percent shooting in the opening quarter to defeat the UNLV Lady Rebels 72-67 and advance to the second round.
“I thought that we struggled defensively in some points of the game,” said Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. “I think they hit some really big shots, tough shots. I thought the first half the (UNLV) post players were way too comfortable inside, hitting some tough shots, but I think it was too easy in the beginning of the game, then they got really confident. Usually, I look at the stat sheet, I don’t like the fact they shot 53 percent, but hey, it’s March and I’m happy that we won. So I’ll take it. It can be ugly, can be whatever, but a win is a win, and this is a good way to start after being off for a few weeks.”
It looked like Arizona might be headed to just their second loss at home this season. Shaina Pellington had other ideas. The senior matched her high in an Arizona uniform by scoring 30 points, growing stronger as the game went on. Pellington scored 13 of her 30 points in the fourth quarter. She added three rebounds, four assists, and four steals without committing a turnover.
“ I think I was just comfortable,” Pellington said. “Especially when I start hitting threes, I feel like I’m really in my element. I’m like, ‘okay, they can’t guard me,’ especially when I was attacking the rim, as well. I just felt super comfortable, and I think my teammates allowed me to do that. They gave me the confidence. They told me keep going, keep going, they can’t guard you. That really helped me when I was on the floor.”
Cate Reese made her comeback from the shoulder injury she suffered on Feb. 20, scoring 16 points in just 20 minutes of play. Reese also contributed three rebounds, an assist, and a steal.
“I was nervous,” Reese said. “I was excited. I think my teammates did a great job of encouraging me. I think I missed some shots I normally wouldn’t, but I haven’t played in a while so I was a little rusty.”
Not only did Arizona struggle to score in the opening quarter, but the Wildcats also had difficulty rebounding. They allowed UNLV to grab 11 boards in just the first 10 minutes. The Lady Rebels outrebounded the Wildcats 36-22.
“I think just being that Arizona defense that we normally bring, we have to bring that from the get-go here on out,” said Reese. “It’s do-or-die, so we have to be ready.”
UNLV was able to gain confidence as Arizona allowed its opponent to shoot 58.3 percent over the first 10 minutes. Desi-Rae Young scored 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds, dominating in the early going.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats had difficulty hitting shots even when they got close to the basket. The team missed 11 of 27 layups, most of them in the opening quarter.
Foul trouble didn’t make things easier. Reese picked up her first foul just 20 seconds into the game and had two with 2:26 left in the first quarter.
The Wildcats started to find their way in the second quarter. They outscored the Rebels 22-15 to head into the half up by two.
It wouldn’t last, though. Arizona had difficulty putting UNLV away. The Rebels ended the third quarter up by five despite the Wildcats scoring 17 points in the period. Were last year’s national runners-up going to be bounced out of the tournament on their own floor in the opening round?
Following the lead of Pellington, Arizona finally played the kind of basketball that has proven to be effective for the team for the past three years and refused to lose. The Wildcats turned up their defense, using it to create offense on the way to a 24-point quarter in front of 9,573 fans.
“In the first half, defensively we kind of gave them a little bit too many options, like they were getting basically whatever they wanted,” Pellington said. “And when the game was on the line in the second half, we knew we needed to come together as a team and get some stops. In practice every day we work on this thing where we do stops and scores, stops and scores, how many stops can you get and how many scores can you get. So I think it was just in the stretch that was just what we needed to do. We needed to connect more stops with more scores so we could be successful in that, and that’s what we did.”
Arizona will play North Carolina in the second round on Monday, March 21 at 7 p.m. MST/PDT on ESPN2. The fifth-seeded Tar Heels had to overcome their own pesky opponent, using a strong fourth quarter to defeat a Stephen F. Austin team that led by as many as 10 in the opening half of the first game.