Arizona showed it has the resources to win games and climb the rankings with freshman reserve post player Lauren Ware producing against USC on Sunday, picking up the slack of Trinity Baptiste, who dominated in the paint against UCLA.
Ware had her first career double-double off the bench with 12 points and 12 rebounds as the seventh-ranked Wildcats held off USC 78-77 in front of no fans at McKale Center because of COVID-19.
Ware, a five-star 6-foot-5 hoops and volleyball recruit from Bismarck, N.D., has started the season in Adia Barnes’ eight-person rotation. She has averaged 19 minutes a game in Arizona’s first three games, showing no signs of slowing down from an ACL tear last season.
“It’s definitely weird coming back after not playing for a year and a half,” said Ware, who normally would be playing volleyball right now for David Rubio but COVID-19 altered that.
“It’s definitely difficult trying to get back in the groove of things. This is kind of what I used to do back when I was playing before.”
Baptiste, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds in the 69-66 win over UCLA on Friday, was limited two points and no rebounds with four fouls in 14 minutes.
Aari McDonald had her customary All-American kind of game, leading the Wildcats with 30 points and Cate Reese added 25 points, 20 of which came in the second half when the Wildcats needed a wakeup call.
Arizona (3-0) has the opportunity to move up in the rankings that come out Monday with No. 6 Mississippi State losing in overtime at home against South Florida on Saturday.
Barnes is not concerned about the lofty rankings as of now because she said she knows her team can play much better to prove it is worthy of that top-10 spot. She said Arizona at No. 7 right now has “zero” importance.
“If you ask me about where we’re at in April, I’ll say it’s important,” she said. “Now, it means nothing. It doesn’t mean anything because we haven’t done anything yet.
“A reason why I don’t feel it is because in a typical year I think we would average more than 10,000 fans. I know we would have sold out against UCLA and we would have had 10,000 today. It’s a great honor but we’re not there yet. We aren’t playing at that level right now. Do we have the ability? No doubt.”
Barnes added that Arizona has the “makings” of a top 10 team and that is evident in the Wildcats’ depth and ability for different players to step up each game.
This game belonged to Ware in that regard.
“Last year, we couldn’t go down the bench like this and have somebody come off the bench get a double-double,” McDonald said. “That’s a testament to the great players Coach Barnes and (assistant) Coach Salvo (Coppa) are recruiting. It also shows how hard they work and when their number is called, they deliver.”
Both Barnes and McDonald said Ware plays beyond her years. In the postgame press conference, Ware looked like a veteran talking to the media. In no way was she overwhelmed by the lights shining on her and the series of questions coming her way.
“Lauren is phenomenal,” Barnes said. “She’s going to be a star in our conference. I’m not surprised at all about how she’s performing and the minutes she’s getting.
“She’s so smart. There’s things you can’t teach. I can’t teach her IQ right away. Her natural ability is really helpful. She is a natural communicator. She’s a freshman and she’s talking like a senior. She picks up offense and strategy really fast.”
When asked about averaging close to 20 minutes right from the start, Ware diverted attention on her and spoke about the bench.
“We have a really deep bench,” Ware said. “I think that’s something that we really use to our advantage. I know coming in off the bench at the end of the first quarter, whatever it is, I’m going to get those good minutes because we have a lot of people that could play who are on the bench.
“That’s really an advantage for us and it’s good for our team.”
In past years, McDonald and Reese would grab the headlines for their combined 55 points. Players like Sam Thomas, Ware, Baptiste, Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington and Indiana transfer Bendu Yeaney will get their moments as well.
Reese made three free throws in the last 22 seconds to help withstand the Trojans. The Wildcats led 78-75 after she made one of two free throws with 16 seconds left.
USC’s Endyia Rogers was fouled in the lane and she made both her free throws to cut the lead to 78-77 with 5.5 seconds left.
After an Arizona timeout, the Wildcats inbounded the ball to McDonald, who with her speed, scurried away from USC’s defenders who tried to foul her to no avail. The buzzer sounded and McDonald was minutes later banging the drum as Arizona’s player of the game.
“We were talking in the huddle and saying, ‘Hey, we’re not losing,'” McDonald said. “They’re holding us well, they’re playing good defense.
“For us to get going I feel like our defense gets us going, like a block from Lauren, rebound from Sam, and playing great containment D. That ignites our offense.”
A blocked shot by Ware led to McDonald scoring on a fast break, putting Arizona ahead 75-72 with 1:58 left.
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) December 6, 2020
The Trojans (1-2) were led by Rogers and Angel Jackson, both of whom had 18 points. Jordan Sanders added 15.
The Wildcats went on an 11-0 run to tie the game at 53 with 3:21 left in the third quarter, capped by a layup by Reese off a beautiful interior pass from Ware.
At that point in the third quarter, McDonald and Reese scored all of Arizona’s points after the Wildcats trailed 37-34 at halftime.
Reese scored nine of her points in that pivotal quarter after USC built a 53-42 lead with 5:35 remaining. McDonald had 13 of her points and Ware contributed four points in that quarter, which ended with Arizona outscoring USC 16-3.
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) December 6, 2020
McDonald’s 3-pointer as time expired gave Arizona a 60-56 lead going into the fourth quarter, which started with a Reese bucket.
Barnes was pleased that Arizona made another comeback after also trailing by 11 against UCLA, but believes the Wildcats can’t afford to keep falling behind and try to catch up.
“We’re not as good as everybody thinks we are right now,” said Barnes, noting Arizona’s offensive struggles against UCLA and USC and its defensive lapses that allowed the double-digit deficits.
“We have a lot of talent but we need to get better. Our offense is not flowing and defensively, that was not Arizona defense. We’re not disciplined right now.”
Adia Barnes said UA not concerned about top 10 ranking, whether it might move up after beating UCLA & USC, because she believes UA not at that level yet in terms of their play. May (may not) add game tomorrow. Brought up NAIA team as possibility to give UA more game experience.
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) December 6, 2020
USC shot 51.7 percent from the field in the first half that led to the Trojans taking a 37-34 halftime lead.
The Wildcats took their biggest lead, 64-56, when Reese made two free throws with 8:00 remaining in regulation.
USC’s 6-0 run cut the lead to 66-64 before Reese’s putback with 6:07 left.
Rogers is a standout from Dallas, where Jason Terry has coached his Lady Jets AAU basketball team.
Rogers and Terry exchanged pleasantries with Terry above the tunnel when Rogers and USC came back on to the court at halftime. Sean Miller also attended the game. He actually showed up when Arizona started to make its third-quarter run.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.