Arizona has now won three games this season when trailing by double digits in the second half after the No. 6 Wildcats rallied to beat Colorado 62-59 on Friday night at Boulder, Colo.
Aari McDonald scored 19 of her 22 points in the second half — including four free throws in the last 19 seconds — to lead Arizona’s rally. Cate Reese had seven of her 10 points after halftime and finished with seven rebounds.
Arizona put comebacks together against UCLA and USC two weeks ago at McKale Center after trailing by 11 points in the third quarter.
“I just love our fight, but I wish we could start out that way instead of putting ourselves in holes” McDonald said. “I would love to just come out strong.”
The Wildcats (5-0 overall) are off to a 4-0 start in conference play for the first time since the 2003-04 season when the Wildcats went 14-4 and tied Stanford atop the Pac-10 standings.
Arizona’s defense is the reason for the dramatic comebacks. UCLA missed 19 straight shots and USC went through a 1 of 14 stretch in the third quarter. Colorado missed 13 straight attempts from the field between the third and fourth quarters.
“We just try to stop the hot hand first,” said Arizona’s defensive ace, Sam Thomas, who had a blocked shot and four steals, including an important nab of a pass near the basket with 21 seconds left and Colorado trailing 58-56.
“We also try to change our defenses up a little bit. We play a little zone, play a little man, do different things on screens, just fluster the offense as much as possible to get those stops.”
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) December 19, 2020
The Wildcats opened the fourth quarter down nine points but Shaina Pellington, a transfer from Oklahoma, led the comeback with her seventh point in the period — all of the points she scored in the game — on a putback to give Arizona a 53-52 lead with 5:50 left in regulation.
It was the second time Pellington produced late results in as many nights; she completed her last final exam of the fall semester the night before.
“That’s the Shaina that I know,” said McDonald of Pellington, who entered the game averaging 4.8 points in 14.2 minutes per game. “She gave us that momentum coming off the bench ready to go. When her number was called, she delivered and brought us a lot of momentum and intensity.”
Neither team led by more than two points after Pellington’s scoring burst until McDonald made two free throws with 19 seconds left, following Thomas’ steal, to give Arizona a 60-56 lead.
Colorado freshman Frida Formann made a 3-pointer before McDonald converted two more free throws with 8 seconds left to put Arizona ahead 62-59.
Mya Hollingshed then missed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer for Colorado (3-4, 1-3).
“We had a little adversity on the road, it was our first road trip and things are different,” said coach Adia Barnes, eluding to the COVID-19 restrictions that separate players and keep them from team dinners and times together.
“I think Colorado is confident against us because they beat us here last year.”
The Buffaloes hold a 17-8 series lead over the Wildcats and they defeated Barnes’ team in February — sans McDonald, who missed the game with an ankle injury — by a score of 50-38 in Boulder. The 38 points, on 24.5 percent shooting from the field, are the least in the Barnes era, which dates to 2016.
WE SEE YOU SHAINA pic.twitter.com/e14HftHANv
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) December 19, 2020
It went from the worst game at Boulder under Barnes to the worst half on Friday when Arizona made only 21.9 percent of its shots with McDonald scoring only on a 3-pointer. She was 1 of 7 from the field in the half and did not go to the free-throw line.
“She pretty much told us we were soft,” McDonald said when asked about Barnes’ message at halftime with the Wildcats trailing 27-20. “Colorado was attempting to intimidate us; it was kind of working because we played into their hands.
“She just told us to play our game, not to settle and keep going at them.”
Helena Pueyo was 3 of 5 with nine points from the field while her teammates were 4 of 27 in the first half. The Wildcats had only one assist at that time, by McDonald.
Pueyo did not score in the second half but her contribution in the first half kept Arizona close.
“I’m really proud of them — Shaina how she came in (during the fourth-quarter run) and Helena coming in being a shooter, being ready. It’s just so important,” Barnes said. “We have so many weapons on this team and different people can step up at different times.
“Without those two being sparks off the bench, we don’t win the game.”
McDonald and Reese started to heat up in the third quarter to get Arizona back in the game. McDonald made two free throws and reached 11 points — marking her 71st consecutive game in double figures — with 4:50 left in the third quarter to cut the lead to 36-35.
Colorado went on an 10-0 run to take a 46-35 lead with 1:46 left in the third quarter.
Arizona trailed 51-42 entering the fourth quarter after McDonald and Reese combined for 20 of the Wildcats’ 22 points in the third quarter.
The Wildcats responded from their cold shooting in the first half by making 50 percent of their shots after halftime.
McDonald and Reese combined to make almost half of Arizona’s shots in the game, going 9 of 25 from the field compared to 10 of 31 from their seven teammates in the rotation.
Virginia Tech grad transfer Trinity Baptiste had only three points on 1-of-6 shooting but she had seven rebounds, five in the second half that were mostly from hustling after the ball.
Bendu Yeaney, a transfer from Indiana, did not score and attempted only one shot but she had two steals.
With a team featuring three newcomers (Pellington, Baptiste and Yeaney) coming from different programs, and a freshman (Lauren Ware) experiencing significant playing time, it can be expected that Arizona will take some time finding its footing early in the season.
COVID-19 is also a challenge. This should also be the time Barnes’ team is more than five games deep into a non-conference schedule, preparing for the Pac-12 gauntlet, not already well into conference play.
The double-digit deficits are at least met with furious rallies ignited by the Wildcats’ defense.
“My team has a tremendous amount of heart. We don’t implode when we’re down. We don’t start pointing the fingers. We rally. We get together,” Barnes said.
With top-ranked Stanford on the horizon Jan. 1 at McKale after games at Utah on Sunday and against Idaho at home Dec. 23, Barnes added:
“We need to (gel) earlier because we’re playing Stanford. We need to gel now. Normally, you have more time to work out the kinks and just get a rotation. We don’t have time for that.”
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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.