Arizona tried to overcome its shooting woes late but the Wildcats could not come all the way back against UCLA, losing 58-49 in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal game Friday night at the Michelob Ultra Arena at Las Vegas.
Aari McDonald was Arizona’s only scorer in double figures with 24 points and she shot 8 of 24 from the field, including 2 of 6 from 3-point range.
Despite being 5-foot-6, she also led the Wildcats (16-5) with eight rebounds.
When she stood from sitting at the postgame interview table, she winced in discomfort from the physical game.
“The scoring droughts didn’t help, (not getting) crucial rebounds, and not stopping the ball … We’ve gotta go back to the drawing board,” McDonald said. “We have three weeks to the postseason so we’ve gotta get better.”
Arizona actually has two weeks until its next game in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will await their seed and placement in March Madness when the selection show takes place March 15.
They are headed for their first NCAA tournament in 16 years.
“The good thing is we’re healthy, but there’s some things we have to fix,” Adia Barnes said. “We have the time to fix it. I think it is just some offensive tweaks, getting in and getting shots. I think finding that continuity.
“The defense isn’t the issue. I think just fixing a couple things on offense, which it’s all fixable things.”
The Wildcats, seeded No. 2 in the tournament, shot 31.6 percent from the field and made only 3 of 17 shots from 3-point range.
A 3-pointer by McDonald and then a layup by Shaina Pellington cut UCLA’s lead to 49-47 with 1:16 left after the Bruins led by 10 points entering the fourth quarter.
Michaela Onyenwere then made a driving shot and Lauryn Miller converted two free throws with 45 seconds left to increase the lead to 53-47.
After McDonald’s shot was blocked, Natalie Chou was fouled and made one of two free throws with 35 seconds left to give UCLA a 54-47 lead.
Normally sharpshooting freshman Madison Conner then missed a 3-pointer and Charisma Osborne made two free throws to secure the win.
“Being a competitor, you don’t want to lose,” said McDonald, who played her last Pac-12 tournament game. “It sucks especially this being my last go-around. I’m proud of my team for fighting all the way. It just wasn’t there yet.”
No. 3-seeded UCLA (16-4) will play top seed Stanford (24-2) in the Pac-12 tournament championship game Sunday at 6 p.m.
Onyenwere was also UCLA’s lone double-figure scorer with 24 points. She was 7 of 19 from the field and also 10 of 11 from the free-throw line. The Bruins outscored Arizona 19-11 at the line as they made 19 of 23 shots from there.
“I felt like when we made small mistakes, we had a tough time with Onyenwere,” Barnes said. “Michaela was taking it coast to coast and we weren’t stopping the ball. I felt like when they were isolating her on the block or at the elbow, we weren’t smothering her like we should have and she was really the only one scoring.”
The game was a defensive duel from the beginning with the score tied at 8 at the end of the first quarter. The teams combined to shoot only 7 of 26 from the field with nine turnovers.
Arizona had six of those turnovers. The Wildcats finished 15.
UCLA pulled away to a 25-17 halftime lead taking advantage of Arizona’s struggling shooting. The Wildcats did not make a shot in the last 9:13 of the second quarter. They were 6 of 22 from the field by halftime, including 1 of 6 from 3-point range.
McDonald led Arizona with eight points at halftime but was 2 of 9 from the field.
After Arizona trimmed the lead to 25-24, UCLA went on a 9-0 run to build a 34-24 margin with 4:29 left in the third quarter.
The Bruins took a 38-28 lead into the fourth quarter as Arizona missed its six attempts from 3-point range in the third quarter.
“We always play in five minutes segments, we call them, ‘Wars,'” Barnes said. “The only war we won was the very last one (when Arizona outscored UCLA 12-11 in the last five minutes). We weren’t able to get stops and scores, or if we got stops, we couldn’t convert and score.”
Arizona’s 3-point shooting since it made 12 of 16 (a program-record 75 percent) against Washington on Feb. 14:
- 3-15 at Cal
- 5-21 at Stanford
- 6-16 at ASU
- 4-16 vs. WSU
- 3-17 vs. UCLA
That’s a combined 21 of 85, which is only 24.7 percent.
McDonald said Helena Pueyo is the best shooter on the team yet Pueyo went scoreless for her fifth straight game and missed all three of her 3-pointers against UCLA. She has missed her last 11 shots from 3-point range dating to Arizona’s win over Washington State at McKale Center on Feb. 12.
Barnes added that Conner “had some good looks” against UCLA “and those will fall.”
Conner, who played for AZ Compass Prep in Chandler only two months ago, played her most minutes (eight) of the season and missed her three 3-point attempts.
“Madi was really aggressive; Helena has passed up some shots,” Barnes said. “She does other things, so she’s not only a shooter. I mean, she had six rebounds and in the last game, she had seven. So she’s doing other things, but we need her to be an aggressive shooter.
“We need her to loosen up the defense because just even her on the floor and Madi, it does spread the floor and give passing lanes for Aari to drive down hill.”
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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.