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NCAA Tournament: Arizona women’s basketball tries to extend the college career of Sam Thomas against North Carolina

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - Arizona Photo by Simon Asher/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Basketball is a team game, but there are some players who come through who embody that team and everything it stands for. Sam Thomas has been that player for the past five years. Now, the Arizona Wildcats need to defeat a tough North Carolina squad to extend her time in cardinal and navy.

For Thomas, Semaj Smith, and Ariyah Copeland, it will be their last games in McKale Center win or lose. While fellow seniors Cate Reese, Shaina Pellington, and Bendu Yeaney will all return for the extra COVID-19 year granted by the NCAA, Thomas is using that extra year now. She wants to see a full McKale Center in her final stand at home.

With the men’s weekend complete and people returning from San Diego, the Wildcats are hoping to improve on the 9,537 fans that attended their win over UNLV on Saturday.

Thomas has played in front of empty gyms due to the pandemic, a few hundred fans when Arizona won just six games her freshman season, and a sold-out McKale in the 2019 WNIT championship game. This will be the final opportunity to see every seat filled once again.

Regardless, the battle on the court is expected to be tough. Dropping to the No. 4 seed due to several losses at the end of the season means that Arizona has to get by the fifth-seeded Tar Heels in the second round. UNC is a team that came through the tough ACC, which produced two No. 1 seeds in NC State and Louisville.

“Our whole league is so good,” said UNC head coach Courtney Banghart. “So I feel gratitude to the ACC season because they’ve prepared this team for whether it’s pressure, size, physicality, speed, shot-making, guard play, et cetera. Very different than how I felt coming into this tournament when I was coming in from Princeton.”

One thing the Wildcats will need to do better against the Tar Heels than they did against UNLV is rebound. Arizona was out-rebounded by a smaller Lady Rebels lineup 36-22. Part of that was Reese being limited to just 20 minutes of play due to fouls and coaching decisions, but it’s been an ongoing problem for the Wildcats for the past several years. The Tar Heels have several tough rebounders, including from the guard position.

“Getting good at rebounding is just a consistent will to go get the ball,” said UNC sophomore Alyssa Ustby. “Definitely takes a little bit of skill, learned skill, which is boxing out and grabbing the ball with two hands, but it’s really whichever team and which individual is willing to put themselves in a position where they’re going to get bumped around constantly on both ends of the floor. And I think that is a skill that our team takes pride in. Therefore, we out-rebounded a lot of teams as well in our season.”

Ustby leads the team in rebounding as a guard. She averages 8.6 boards per game. Arizona’s top rebounder is Reese with six per game, which would barely rank third for the Tar Heels, just eclipsing the 5.9 RPG from Kennedy Todd-Williams. No one else grabs more than four for the Wildcats.

Part of that is philosophy. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has said repeatedly over the past few years that, while she values defensive boards, she does not care about offensive boards. Instead, she prefers to focus on transition defense. Defending in transition was a key that Barnes mentioned again when discussing the keys to defeating UNC, but she was also concerned about boxing out.

“I know that if I think of a couple of keys in this game, the first one is transition defense, second is boxing out,” Barnes said. “Those are things that we have to do. They’re tough, they’re physical and we are going to have to do that in order to win the game. If we don’t, we won’t win the game.”

The Wildcats and Tar Heels tip off at 7 p.m. MST/PDT on ESPN2. Those who plan to attend in person should be aware that beginning today, masks are recommended but no longer required in McKale Center.