The Arizona Wildcats didn’t want — or expect — to be one-and-done at the Pac-12 Tournament.
But it’s March, and upsets are seemingly everywhere.
Three powerhouse teams — No. 4 Louisville, No. 6 LSU and No. 6 10 Michigan — all lost their conference tournament games on Friday in what was the biggest day of top-10 upsets since March 8, 2020. The nation’s 11th-ranked team, Maryland, also fell. So did Oregon, the Pac-12 Tournament’s second seed. Utah’s 80-73 win over the Ducks puts the sixth-seeded Utes in Sunday’s Pac-12 championship game, where they’ll take on top-seeded Stanford.
Fortunately for Arizona, there’s still plenty of basketball left. The UA is a surefire NCAA Tournament selection, and a likely tournament host as a No. 4 seed. The Wildcats will have to wait until the March 13 selection show to find out.
“Honestly, the NCAA Tournament is more important than the Pac-12 Tournament,” coach Adia Barnes said Thursday, after the fourth-seeded Wildcats lost to fifth-seeded Colorado 45-43 in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals. 12, I love you, but it is what it is. If I have to choose, maybe going to the (Pac-12) finals and have Cate (Reese) back, but the NCAAs is what we need and need to be successful in.”
Still, there are lessons to be learned from the UA’s one-game stay in the Pac-12 Tournament. Here are three takeaways:
1. War’s a winner
Over the last two games, forward Lauren Ware has been pulling rebounds, blocking shots, grabbing steals, outmuscling her opponents and scoring. Ware was at her best against CU, putting up 15 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and one steal. In her last two games, she’s scored 27 points, grabbed 19 rebounds, dished seven assists and blocked seven shots while playing 69 minutes.
If Ware’s performance continues when Reese comes back for the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats will look much different. It could be a game-changer.
Arizona got a glimpse at what a fully healthy Ware-Reese combination looks like earlier this season. Over Arizona’s first seven games, Ware averaged 8.3 points while adding 38 rebounds, 17 blocks, nine assists and six steals. She then suffered a dislocated kneecap — an injury that cost Ware 40 days.
2. The defense is on point
When you hold a team to 45 points and force 21 turnovers, your defense is working. The Wildcats played well defensively in Thursday’s losing, and is back to looking like one of the top defenses in the country. The UA allows an average of 56.81 points per game, the best mark in the league ahead of Colorado (56.83).
During Thursday’s second quarter, the Wildcats went on a 9-0 run, forcing two travels, a five-second call and another turnover before Helena Puyo logged a steal. And during a 10-0 fourth-quarter run, Arizona forced a shot-clock violation and picked three steals — including two from Taylor Chavez.
The trapping and contesting made it hard for Colorado, which shot 32.6% of the field.
3. The shots should start falling
Arizona shot just 2 for 24 from 3-point range against Colorado, finished just 25% from the field, and didn’t score a basket in the final 6 minutes.
But Thursday’s numbers don’t tell the full story.
The Wildcats hit 17 of their 18 free throws against CU, a 94% clip that’s markedly better than their 70.8% season average. And Arizona moved the ball well effectively, with many of the five players on the floor touching the ball on most possessions. Ball movement is one of the things Arizona’s offense is built on, along with transition baskets.
When their offense is clicking, the Wildcats drive and kick out multiple times until they find an open shooter. They also take more “good shots,” which they did on Thursday. It’s just that the shots didn’t fall.
Thursday’s performance marked a difference from Arizona’s previous two-plus games, where — with Reese out with a dislocated right shoulder — the offense seemed to stall. The Wildcats had seven assists on their 12 made baskets against Colorado, a ratio that’s higher than its season average.
The update on Reese’s injury seems to be positive. The forward removed her sling this week and has been shooting, though she wasn’t healthy enough for Barnes to suit her up for Thursday’s game. Barnes is still hopeful that Reese will be ready for the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament opener, which will take place either March 18 or 19.
“We’re talking 10 days since it happened (but) time is a good thing,” Barnes said Thursday. “The positive thing for us is there is time. We wouldn’t play for another three weeks, almost two-and- a-half weeks (since her injury). That’s a lot of time for people to get better, and she will be better by then.”
• The latest issue of Slam magazine includes a feature on UA commit Maya Nnajiwho said she has dreams beyond basketball.
“I want to dedicate my life to helping people after the ball stops bouncing,” Nnaji said. “I want to inspire the next generation of little boys and girls. I just want to be a light to people. I want to be a positive role model. Every time I hit the court, I want to keep in mind that people are watching me. One of my ‘whys’ is to keep going for my people and keep pushing through.”
• The Pac-12 Tournament hasn’t been kind to Arizona. Over the past six years, the Wildcats have lost in the first round twice, the quarterfinals three times (including Thursday) and the semifinals once.