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3 takeaways from Arizona women’s basketball’s loss to Colorado at Pac-12 Tournament

arizona-womens-basketball-takeaways-pac12-tournament-vegas-2022-ware-reese-pellington Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS--Arizona women’s basketball couldn’t overcome an abysmal shooting performance Thursday in a 45-43 loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals. Despite the defeat, Wildcats coach Adia Barnes was upbeat after the game, turning her attention to what the team needs to do to go on another deep NCAA Tournament run.

Here are three key takeaways from the loss.

Lauren Ware needs to be as assertive as she was Thursday

Ware has learned from one of the best forwards in the Pac-12 by playing alongside Cate Reese the last two years. So much so that sometimes Reese’s presence interferes with Ware’s on-court aggression because she knows who’s beside her in the paint. With Reese absent Thursday recovering from a lingering shoulder injury, Ware was forced to take a more commanding role, and the sophomore delivered. Ware was Arizona’s only scorer in double figures (15), making her presence felt all game with her physicality. Ware forced Colorado into 10 fouls, and she made the most of her opportunity at the charity stripe, making nine of 10 free throws.

“That’s just something I think I should be doing all the time,” Ware said. “I think now with Cate out, obviously we have a big deficit in those two areas of scoring and rebounding. So the coaches have kind of put that on me to be more aggressive and take more good shots and be more aggressive on the offensive end, and the defensive end as well, with rebounding an on both ends and I think I’ve done a better job of that.”

Defensively, Ware blocked two shots and assisted on three more blocks. At 6-foot-5, she has the length and wingspan to be an elite disrupter. Without Reese on the court, Ware has used every bit of that size advantage. Two of Ware’s top four rebounding performances this season have come in the last two games. Her two blocks Thursday tied a conference-play high (she had two against Utah). She’s also played more minutes over the last two games than any prior game in her collegiate career.

“For a big girl to play 37 minutes, that’s a lot,” Barnes said. “So it’s probably better we didn’t have a game right now so she can rest her body. But she’s been great.”

When Reese comes back for the NCAA Tournament, Arizona will need Ware to carry over her productivity from the last few games into the postseason.

Cate Reese’s recovery appears to be ahead of schedule

Fortunately for Arizona, the return of Cate Reese is no longer a hypothetical but a certainty. Barnes said as much after the Colorado loss. Reese, Arizona’s leading scorer and rebounder, was seen sitting on the bench without a sling for her right shoulder. Reese has apparently been so quick in her recovery that Barnes considered playing her in the Pac-12 Tournament.

“I could have pressed as a coach and had Cate back this week, but it wouldn’t be constructive and it wouldn’t be productive for the (NCAA) Tournament,” Barnes said. “If I had to choose, if maybe we went to the (Pac-12) finals to have Cate back, but the NCAA is what we need and need to be successful in. So we will have Cate back.”

The significance of Reese’s presence can’t be understated. Since Reese’s injury in the second half at Washington State, Arizona has gone on to lose three out of four games.

“The positive thing for us is there is time. We won’t play for almost two and a half weeks, so that’s a lot of time for people to get better and she will be better by then,” Barnes said. “She already started shooting and stuff, so we were all happy about that. So we’ll be full force soon.”

Arizona needs to figure out its end-of-game plan

When the game is on the line as it was in the closing seconds Thursday, Arizona needs to determine who is getting the ball and doing what with it. The Wildcats had a pair of closing second looks against Colorado, and neither attempt was close. Trailing by two with 15 seconds left, Arizona got the ball in the paint to Ware, who gave it up to Koi Love for a double-teamed, contested layup that missed the rim. When Arizona got the ball back with the same score and two seconds remaining, Sam Thomas inbounded a pass to Shaina Pellington, who lofted an errant three-pointer that didn’t catch the rim.

Pellington does have a couple game-winners to her name this season, but as a 26 percent 3-point shooter, it makes little sense why she would be the shooter in that situation. Similarly, Ware was a better option than Love to score on the prior possession, albeit she faced a ton of pressure in the paint all game. The biggest question mark in the final seconds is why Thomas was the one inbounding the ball to Pellington rather than being on the court. As Arizona’s most experienced player and one of its best shooter, Thomas should at least have been an option.

Once Reese is healthy, Arizona will have back one its top perimeter and post threats. But even counting Reese, this isn’t a team that has a clear plan for what it wants to do in end-of-game situations. Barnes and her staff will need to nail down their final second scenarios in the coming two weeks, or else Arizona could find itself in a similar situation in the NCAA Tournament as it did in Pac-12. And unlike Thursday, there’ll be no later chance.