It was a Top 20 battle between two shorthanded teams. The Arizona Wildcats and Oregon Ducks both lost a starting post to injury before the season started. The Ducks lost freshman guard Jennah Isai last week to transfer and Arizona has not had freshman post Maya Nnaji this weekend due to concussion protocol. Who was going to win in this battle of attrition?
Arizona ended the week on a high note in front of 7,963 fans, defeating high-powered Oregon in a 79-71 shootout that featured great shooting and some less-than-great defense.
“This was a huge weekend at home, to bounce back after the Stanford loss and not feel like we performed well and just kind of got manhandled in the Bay Area,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “To come back here, play a really good, underrated Oregon State team. It’s big. We’re talking 6-8 inside, good players, coached well, and then play another really big team in Oregon. These are two really good wins. This is a huge week for our program.”
The Ducks shot 52.7 percent from the floor, but the Wildcats overpowered them by going 10 of 20 from the 3-point line and hitting 15 of 19 free throws compared to Oregon’s 6 for 9. Eight of Arizona’s free throws came in the last minute as UO tried to extend the game.
With Nnaji out for the second straight game due to concussion protocol, the Wildcats had a decided disadvantage inside. Six-foot-two Cate Reese and Esmery Martinez were the only healthy post players.
After a week of going against bigger posts like Stanford’s Cameron Brink and Fran Belibi and Oregon State’s Raegan Beers and Jelena Mitrovic, they had to face Phillipina Kyei, Grace VanSlooten, and Kennedy Basham. VanSlooten is the smallest of the three at 6-foot-3.
It seemed to wear Reese out. She went 4 for 16 from the floor, missing short on multiple shots and two of her four free throws. The fifth-year forward was still able to get to double figures with 10 points, four rebounds, two assists, and two steals against just one personal foul.
“You don’t practice ever against 6-8 people,” Barnes said. “You don’t play against good players like that in practice. I think it’s just a different mentality. It’s harder...but she stuck with it. She had some big shots down the stretch. It wasn’t her best game, but she didn’t give up. She could have been less aggressive down the stretch [and] she wouldn’t hit some of those, and we need her to score inside. We had two post players.... So, she stuck it out all the way, so I’m proud of her... She played 37 minutes in the second game of a weekend. It’s tough.”
But the win was powered by sophomore guard Madi Conner. Conner didn’t play in the first half. In the second half, she came in with about six minutes left in the third quarter and went off for a team-high 16 points on 3-for-4 shooing (3-for-3 from 3-point range) and 7-for-7 foul shooting. She also had two rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes.
“I’m just kind of doing what I’m supposed to do, going out there and bringing energy,” Conner said. “When you come off the bench, you’re supposed to bring a spark, and I feel like I’m trying to do that in different ways. Not just shooting the three, but that might be finding my teammates for shots or playing defense, taking charges, or whatever it takes.”
Fifth-year point guard Shaina Pellington also had a huge game. After hitting her first 3-point shot of the year against Oregon State on Friday night, Pellington was feeling it on Sunday. She hit her second 3-pointer of the season halfway through the first quarter, going 2 for 2 from beyond the arc in the game to improve to 3 for 9 on the season.
Pellington ended the night with 14 points on 4-for-9 shooting. She also hit all four of her free throws. She added six rebounds, six assists, a block, and a steal with no turnovers.
“I’m just trying to be more patient and not really force things as much,” Pellington said. “I mean, we’re playing against teams that not necessarily are really big on like pressuring as much. They played to our strengths. If you can’t shoot, they’re not gonna guard you. So, for me, my strengths most teams don’t want to guard me, but today I feel like I was making shots. And I was able to make the right read because now they had to guard me a little bit closer. So, I was able to make the right passes, right reads and yeah, I didn’t have any turnovers, so that’s pretty good.”
The lack of turnovers was especially important to Barnes, but so was Pellington’s defensive pressure which helped force the Ducks into 20 turnovers.
“The first thing to look at is assists to turnovers as a point guard, how you can set up for teammates,” Barnes said. “I thought she was a very good floor general today. I thought she pushed the pace when she needed to. I think she was intentional about pushing it early because that was one of our keys to the game. And then she got shooters the ball at the right time. I think it’s important. I think if you looked at Shaina a couple years ago, she would have probably overdribbled, looking for those gaps. But now she’s kicking it faster, she’s kicking it up, and I think that’s growth as a point guard. So, to have six assists in a big one like this and control the game, and also defend full court for the entire game against two really good guards, I think she did a phenomenal job.”
Despite not getting to double digits in scoring with just five points, Helena Pueyo came up big on defense with five steals and a block. She also got her teammates involved, dishing out four assists, and led the team in +/- at 15. Only her four fouls kept her from being on the floor more than 26 minutes.
The other Wildcats in double figures were Jade Loville (13 points) and Martinez (11 points). Martinez tied Pellington for a team high with six rebounds but ran into foul trouble and only played 18 minutes.
The Ducks had four players in double figures led by VanSlooten with 18 on 8-for-13 shooting. Endyia Rogers and Te-Hina Paopao each had 17, and Chance Gray contributed 10.
Despite having a size disadvantage, Arizona tied Oregon in total rebounds with 33. The Wildcats controlled the offensive boards with 15 to the Ducks’ eight. That led to a 14-9 advantage in second-chance points. The Wildcats also won the battle of points off turnovers 16-8. They had just nine turnovers to 20 for UO.