The 16-year wait for an NCAA tournament appearance and victory in March Madness came to an end for Arizona on Monday.
Arizona, playing in its first NCAA tournament game since 2005, breezed its way to a 79-44 victory Monday over Stony Brook in a first round game at San Antonio.
No. 3-seeded Arizona (17-5) advances to the second round to face No. 11 BYU (19-5) on Wednesday. The Cougars upset No. 6 Rutgers 69-66 earlier Monday.
“We came out ready, fearless,” said Adia Barnes, who holds the distinction of winning an NCAA tournament game as a player and coach at Arizona.
“I was concerned about how we were going to come out, like are we going to be too nervous for our first time in the tournament? This is uncharted territory. But we handled it like champs. I thought we came out with intensity that I expected and I wanted to see, so I’m very happy for this team.”
Arizona was led by Aari McDonald’s 20 points, four assists and three steals. Cate Reese added 16 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Trinity Baptiste, a Virginia Tech graduate transfer, matched her season-high with 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting with six rebounds and three steals.
Sam Thomas tied her career-high with six steals and had three assists and no turnovers in 29 minutes.
“It definitely feels long overdue,” Thomas said of ending the NCAA tournament drought with a win. “It’s been fun so far but we just want to go as far as we can. I love my teammates. We’ve had a great time, even though we are in a bubble (because of COVID-19 protocol).”
No. 14 Stony Brook (15-6) was led by Asiah Dingle’s 14 points and Earlette Scott added 10 points but no other player scored more than six points.
Anastasia Warren, who had 31 points in Stony Brook’s America East championship game last week, was held scoreless while missing six shots from the field.
Arizona tallied 17 steals and six blocked shots as Stony Brook shot 29.2 percent from the field and committed 25 turnovers. The Wildcats outscored the Seawolves 25-8 on points off turnovers.
“I’m extremely proud. We’ve got to just cherish this right now, but we’ve got to grind it out again in a couple of days (against BYU),” McDonald said.
The margin of victory for Arizona over Stony Brook is the largest in its NCAA tournament history. The previous biggest win was by 22 points in a 76-54 win over Western Kentucky in Arizona’s first NCAA tournament game in school history in 1997.
The Wildcats were in control after going on a 13-2 run to take a 17-6 lead with 5:37 left in the first quarter.
McDonald already had seven points by that time. She reached double-figures in scoring for the 88th consecutive game, which spans her entire Arizona career and is the longest such streak in the nation.
“My teammates and I, we live for these moments — this is what we’ve been waiting for,” McDonald said. “This is for all the work we’ve been putting in. Just to see the total balance today, I can’t complain. I’m excited and we just got to carry it to the next game.”
➡️ 25 forced turnovers
➡️ 17 steals
➡️ 29% shooting by Stony Brook pic.twitter.com/ZtiAHVGBZU
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 22, 2021
The Wildcats closed the first quarter with a 9-0 run to take a 26-10 lead. The lead ballooned to 27 points by halftime.
A 3-pointer by Reese, only her ninth of the season, increased Arizona’s lead to 60-24 with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
Arizona made 57.9 percent of its shots while tallying 18 assists with 14 turnovers.
The Wildcats looked refreshed after struggling late in the regular season and in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals against UCLA more than two weeks ago.
They had lost three of their last four games before the NCAA tournament, including a setback in overtime at archrival ASU to conclude the regular season. The week before, last-place Cal took the Wildcats to the last minute.
“I think one of the challenges that I challenged the team with and myself as a coach was I didn’t feel like we performed in the Pac-12 tournament after (beating) Washington State (in the quarterfinals) the way we should have,” Barnes said. “I didn’t think we were playing Arizona basketball. I wasn’t happy, obviously, with the loss against UCLA. I just knew we had some things to work on.
“In the last two and a half weeks, we’ve worked on things that we’ve gotten better at. I think mentally, physically, we were zoned in. We were tuned in, ready for the next step. I saw a different sense of urgency. I saw a different hunger.”
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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.