A massive crowd watched an epic game.
TUCSON, AZ — In 2011, TCU head coach Raegan Pebley was the WAC Coach of the Year at Utah State. That year, Arizona made the WNIT and was eliminated by Pebley’s Aggies. It was the last time the Wildcats made the postseason.
Eight years later, Pebley hoped her team would end Arizona’s season again. This time it didn’t work out the same way, though, as an Arizona team buoyed by a record crowd ended TCU’s season by hanging on to a 59-53 victory.
What to do about Aari McDonald
McDonald’s achievements on offense are well-known to the Arizona faithful. They’re also the primary offensive puzzle that opposing teams must account for.
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Previous opponents have used tactics like packing the paint to take away her driving lanes, going to a zone or putting a taller defensive player on her. Pebley had a slightly different plan.
“Our plan was to make her finish and not put her on the free throw line,” she said. “And we did a good job of that until we had to foul toward the end. She had two free throws in the game.”
It was the third time in the five WNIT games that McDonald had been limited to just two trips to the line. As a team, Arizona went to the line only twice over the first 39 minutes. The Wildcats ended up with 14 free throw attempts, but 12 of those came as TCU attempted to extend the game over the final 57 seconds.
The Wildcats were able to overcome because other players stepped up. While McDonald led all scorers with 19 points, it was important that Arizona got more balanced production.
“They had some players hit some shots today,” Pebley said. “They were adequate enough shooters from the perimeter that you had to be smart about how you helped off. I thought we did a pretty good job of being able to rim protect for the most part. (McDonald) took 23 shots to make eight of them. I think we did a significant enough job. We held them to 59 points on their home floor.”
TCU killed Arizona on the boards…but you have to be able to shoot the ball
“We needed more productivity in the paint than we got,” Pebley said.
What TCU got in the paint was dominant rebounding. While that’s undoubtedly important, the Horned Frogs demonstrated that you can dominate on the boards and still find yourself never in control of a game.
TCU out-rebounded Arizona 50-33. On the offensive boards, it was even more lopsided with the Horned Frogs securing 23 to just six for the Wildcats. This has been an ongoing problem for Arizona throughout the season.
The problem for TCU was that they couldn’t put the ball in the basket and they struggled to protect the ball. The Frogs started off shooting just 23 percent in the first quarter, and things didn’t get much better. The only made over 30 percent of their shots in the second quarter, and they bottomed out at 20 percent shooting in the third.
” I thought we did a good job defensively,” Pebley said, “but our offense just did not find a good rhythm tonight.”
They also gave Arizona far too many points off turnovers. The Wildcats were able to force 15 turnovers — nine of them from steals — and turn that into 19 points. That defensive intensity has kept Arizona in many games this season and gotten them more than a few wins.
“Although they out-rebounded us, I felt like we played solid, good basketball defense,” McDonald said. “Dominique (McBryde) got some key stops. Sam (Thomas) got some key blocks. Tee Tee (Starks) always (does) a solid job on the defensive end. So, each of those moments or plays added up, and it got us the win.”
Letting them play
The officiating at McKale Center during the WNIT has been quite different from during the regular season. This has both helped and hindered Arizona. During the regular season, the Arizona bigs were prone to getting into foul trouble and spent crucial stretches in big games on the bench.
During the WNIT, none of the Arizona bigs have faced significant foul trouble. McBryde sat out the first game due to illness, but played over 30 minutes in the last four contests.
Reese has not played as many minutes, but that has been due to tactical decisions, not foul trouble. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has gone to the taller, stronger Semaj Smith when she needed to match up against size.
While the quiet whistles benefit Arizona’s interior, they hinder the effectiveness of Aari McDonald. McDonald’s tendency to drive to the hoop resulted in a lot of fouls and a lot of trips to the free throw line prior to the WNIT. In her 39-point game against Loyola Marymount, for example, she went 20 of 23 from the line.
Over the five games in the WNIT, McDonald has seen her trips to the charity stripe take a nosedive. While she averaged 7.8 free throw attempts per game over the first 31 games of the season, she is averaging only 4.4 FTA per game during the five games in the WNIT.
The lack of whistles has led to some physical play in Tucson, though. Things started to get chippy down the stretch as fouls weren’t called and players felt them were being manhandled a bit. McDonald said that she felt it was one of the more physical games she has played in, even though she didn’t end up with a bloody lip like she did against Idaho.
“It was just a tough game,” she said. “I feel like our team matched their physicality.”
Ten thousand and counting
Arizona has made a concerted effort to fill McKale Center for the WNIT. It’s been a wild success. The team has pulled ever larger numbers of fans each round, culminating with a program record of 10,135 for their semifinal game against the Horned Frogs. A few things have helped that cause.
First and foremost, there’s the love Tucson has for Barnes and she has for Tucson. When she returned to coach her alma mater, the Arizona faithful were excited to have an alumna coaching. She was happy to be back.
“I chose this place twice,” Barnes said. “I’m happy I chose it. It’s meaningful. There’s a special place for Arizona always in my heart because I chose it as a player, and this is where I grew. This is where I learned my most valuable life lessons.This is where I came in a 17-year-old that was a year younger than everybody–an immature, little bratty freshman–to a leader when I left. So, all those things, I hold that to my heart. I don’t just say that because I’m up here. I feel that, and it’s special to me.”
When the Wildcats came close to .500 her first year, then immediately set about building the best recruiting class in the Pac-12 for the 2018-19 season, the fans had faith that she would bring something special to a program desperate for something good to happen. A 17-game (and counting) improvement over last year’s win total made them believe that it might happen sooner rather than later.
The buy-in from everyone in the Arizona Athletic Department has helped, as well. First, there was Athletic Director Dave Heeke securing the hosting bids by making the WNIT “an offer they couldn’t refuse,” in Barnes’ words. But it’s gone beyond the upper administration. From football coach Kevin Sumlin buying tickets for students to men’s basketball coach Sean Miller sitting in the stands to one coach after another tweeting encouragement, the marketing has been an all-hands-on-deck affair.
Add to that the fact that the Arizona men aren’t in the postseason for just the second time since 1985 — leaving a huge void in March for a basketball-mad city — and you have a recipe for something historic. You also have a recipe for the kind of home court advantage that few women’s basketball teams enjoy.
Saying goodbye is hard to do
While Barnes will be enjoying one more game this season on the court with her players and fans, Pebley had the difficult job of wrapping things up for the year before looking towards the future.
“I’m just really proud of the team,” she said. “This was a team that continued to fight all year. They showed great growth in Big XII play. Our additional wins didn’t come from non-conference, it came from Big XII play, which is great growth for our program.
“You hear a lot about teams that go through adversity, but this team really went through adversity. And, without going into details, I’m just really proud of how they were able to support each other through it all.”
The WNIT Finals will be an all-Wildcat battle. The Northwestern Wildcats will travel to Tucson to take on Arizona at 3 p.m. ET (noon MST) on Saturday, Apr. 6. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
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