If there was any concern that the University of Arizona women would be intimidated by playing the most successful program in college women’s basketball, it didn’t take long to realize that fear was unfounded.
Less than a minute, actually. That’s how long it took the Wildcats to grab a 6-0 lead and hold on to it the rest of the way through the NCAA Final Four game last night.
The UConn Huskies, a No. 1 seed in the tournament, were unable to take the lead at any time during the entire 40 minutes. Attribute that, in large part, to a smothering defense that forced nine Huskies’ turnovers in the first half alone, and 12 for the game. And this is a team that ranked among the best this season in protecting the ball.
Arizona took a 32-22 lead into halftime and kept the pressure on the rest of the way, letting the Huskies get no closer than five points on the way to a 69-59 victory and a ticket to Sunday’s national championship game against Stanford.
That 10-point UConn deficit at halftime is the program’s largest in NCAA Tournament games since 2007. And the Huskies’ 22 first-half points were the lowest of the season.
That unrelenting Arizona defensive pressure has carried the No. 3-seeded Cats through four games so far. It’s something you can’t replicate in practice and it’s hard to envision its effect until you’re faced with it in a game. And by then it’s too late.
The Huskies couldn’t find their offensive rhythm. Each time they closed the gap, the Wildcat defense shut the door and one of the Wildcats would contribute points at just the right time. Eight Arizona players scored, with three in double digits.
Aari McDonald once again led the Wildcat scoring with 26 points, to go with 31 against Texas A&M to lead the team to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history, and 33 against No. 4 Indiana to reach the Final Four.
The constant-motion Pac-12 Player of the Year drove through the UConn defense for layups at critical times, and popped quick-release three-pointers to add 12 points from behind the arc. The Huskies couldn’t find a way to contain her.
The other two players in double figures were senior forward Sam Thomas with 12 points, and junior forward Cate Reese (giving celebratory high-fives in photo above), who finished the night with 11.
UConn was able to pull to within five points early in the third quarter, but Arizona stretched the lead back to 12 points with four minutes to go in the period, and kept the Huskies at arm’s length until UConn closed the gap again to five points (60-55) with 1:25 left in the game.
The rebounding war was pretty evenly-fought, with Arizona holding a slight edge, 36-34. Arizona’s sophomore guard, Helena Pueyo, led the team with eight boards and McDonald, the smallest player on the floor, collected seven.
The Wildcats will meet Stanford, another No. 1-seeded opponent, tomorrow at 3 p.m. The Cardinal arrived at the championship game after a 66-65 win over South Carolina, a match-up of two top seeds.
Stanford has won three NCAA championships under head coach Tara VanDerveer, but none since 1992.
And the way Adia Barnes has Arizona playing right now, the Hall of Fame coach may have to wait to add another.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)