It wasn’t easy. At times, it looked like it might be hopeless. As long as there’s time on the clock, nothing is hopeless, though. Arizona proved that by coming back from a 12-point deficit twice to defeat Oregon State 72-69.
“It was all part of the plan,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes joked. “Play 34 minutes awful, then wait until the last 3:24 to play defense and actually play.”
The Wildcats relied on an unlikely hero. Lauren Fields, who was 0-4 heading into the final quarter went off for eight points in 40 seconds with two 3-pointers and a fast break layup to tie things at 65. A 3-pointer by Helena Pueyo 19 seconds later put Arizona ahead for the first time since 5:05 in the first quarter.
“You can’t make a shot if you don’t shoot it,” Fields said. “So, that’s what I was telling myself. Keep shooting, one would eventually fall. And that’s what happened.”
Arizona did not relinquish the lead.
The Wildcats were led by Cate Reese with 16 points, two rebounds, and three steals. Close behind were Arizona’s primary point guards, Pueyo and Shaina Pellington. The pair had almost identical stat lines with 12 points, four rebounds, six assists, three steals, and one turnover. The few differences were Pellington had two fouls and a slightly higher +/- while Pueyo played four more minutes.
“So, Shaina, 4 for 6 from the field with a tremendous amount of congestion inside,” Barnes said. “One for one from the 3. Three for four [from the line] and six assists, one turnover. That’s really good for the primary ball handler for 30 minutes.”
Barnes also had a great deal of praise for Pueyo, who has started scoring more lately including driving to the basket and drawing more fouls. It was her second straight game scoring in double figures and her third this season.
“Helena has been phenomenal,” Barnes said. “Her off the bench gives us a punch, brings energy. She’s just like a starter but I think she likes coming off the bench. I think she’s good at watching versus starting for her. I think she’ll do whatever the team needs, but it gives us a different look. Sometimes with Shaina, sometimes it’s in place of Shaina, so they’re different.”
Esmery Martinez led the Wildcats on the boards, collecting eight rebounds to go with her nine points.
The first half was disjointed for Arizona. With a slower frontcourt on the opposing side, Reese and Martinez would appear to have an advantage putting the ball on the court and driving. Instead, both chose to shoot from outside. The pair went 1-4 from the 3-point line in the first half with Martinez having the only successful shot.
Arizona finally started hitting some shots towards the end of the second quarter. Pueyo and Madi Conner started forcing the issue, driving to the basket. It stopped the bleeding, but it was still mostly one-on-one basketball and Arizona still wasn’t getting a lot of stops. The Wildcats went into the locker room down by eight.
Barnes shook things up by starting the second half with Kailyn Gilbert, Pellington, Pueyo, Martinez, and Reese on the floor. Some freshman mistakes by Gilbert put an end to that after a few possessions.
With Pellington, Pueyo, Fields, Conner, and Reese on the floor, Arizona finally started to play real team basketball. Guarding tough. Sharing the ball. Reese started using her speed to get by the Beavers’ slower frontcourt players instead of putting up 3-pointers.
After falling behind by 12 in the third quarter, things clicked. The Wildcats went on an 8-0 run to close out the third and tie it at 49 heading into the final 10 minutes of the game.
The Beavers punched back. The two teams traded baskets to start the fourth, OSU fed talented freshman forward Raegan Beers. The visitors went on a 10-0 run to take the double-digit lead again. They eventually pushed the lead back to 12 points on a Bendu Yeaney jumper.
Then, came the final fierce comeback, which relied heavily on defense.
Martinez made two free throws with 3:24 to go in the game to cut the OSU lead to single digits. Pueyo got one of her three steals on the ensuing Beavers possession. She was off to the races to get the fast break layup.
Then, it was time for Fields. Former Wildcat Yeaney missed a 3-pointer on the other end. Reese rebounded the ball, then sent it to Pellington, who hit Fields for an open 3 in the corner.
The next play was similar. This time it was Talia von Oelhoffen missing the 3-pointer for the Beavers. Martinez got the rebound, sent it to Pueyo, who hit Fields for a second straight 3-point shot.
A third straight OSU possession turned into no points when Pellington stole the ball from Yeaney. This time, she got it to Fields for the layup on the fast break. Tied ballgame.
A fourth defensive stop, again on a Pellington steal, turned into a Pellington-to-Pueyo pass and a Pueyo 3-pointer to take the lead for good.
“The defensive lineup was the one that really kept the comeback later,” Barnes said. “So, I think sometimes just sitting, processing, watching doesn’t hurt. The way they did our press down the stretch with the traps and the pressure, that’s how we need to start games because it was the starting group that came back in and did it. So, we have to be able to do that consistently and not wait...but the thing is we could have laid down and died. We could have said, ‘Oh, we’re done,’...I mean they controlled the game for 34 minutes. They were leading. Every time we had come back, they’d hit the big 3.”
Keeping confidence, knowing they could do it, made the difference.
“We didn’t have control of the game for most of it,” Pellington said. “So just staying engaged. But when you have players that are able to do what Lauren did towards the end, it really helps you feel the fire and it gives you energy. So, I just like to try and stay ready so I don’t have to get ready. Once she started hitting those shots it was like it kind of added fuel to the fire for us. So, I think just staying engaged was key to coming back down the stretch.”
Arizona was without freshman forward Maya Nnaji who was in concussion protocol. It left the team with just two healthy posts, both of whom are only 6-foot-2. Barnes hopes to have Nnaji back when the Wildcats face Oregon on Sunday, Jan. 8.