Arizona can achieve another monumental first in its program history on Saturday by beating No. 2-seeded Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
Its first Elite Eight appearance in program history is on the line.
The third-seeded Wildcats (18-5) are in the Sweet 16 for only the second time since the program started in 1972-73 after getting past No. 11 BYU 52-46 on Wednesday.
The game against the Aggies (25-2) will tip off at 5 p.m. on ESPN2 with Beth Mowins, Debbie Antonelli and LaChina Robinson calling the action. KTUC (1400-AM) will also broadcast the game live with Arizona grad Derrick Palmer doing the play-by-play.
Arizona, which is in its first NCAA Tournament in 16 years, will go against a Texas A&M program coached by legendary Gary Blair that has an extensive history in March Madness.
Since taking over at Texas A&M in 2003-04, Blair has coached the Aggies to at least the Sweet 16 eight times. His program has advanced to the Elite Eight three times and the Final Four once, when the Aggies won it all in 2010-11.
Texas A&M hero Jordan Nixon, who hit the game-winning basket against Iowa State in the second round Wednesday, will often be matched against Arizona All-American guard Aari McDonald.
“Make no mistake with Aari McDonald, I don’t think there’s any shutting her down,” said Nixon, who had a career-high 35 points in the win over Iowa State. “She’s a great player, and the most you can hope is that you slow her down, limit her effectiveness and make her uncomfortable.”
Any inefficiency Arizona might have on offense — the Wildcats rank 117th in the nation in field-goal percentage (41.9) and 232nd with 11.7 assists per game — it can make up with its defense.
The Wildcats rank 30th in field-goal percentage defense (36.4) and 15th in scoring defense (55.1 points a game allowed).
“They have good guard play,” Blair said. “They share it, and the offense is created off of their defense. They force you into turnovers in the press and half-court. We didn’t see that versus Iowa State, but every game is different. Arizona is more like an SEC team.”
Blair pointed out that Texas A&M “size-wise” is “in good shape versus Arizona. They’re a 6-2 and under team with a 6-5 player (Lauren Ware) off the bench.”
Arizona Career Scoring Leaders
Texas A&M starts 6-foot-2 forward N’Dea Jones and 6-4 center Ciera Johnson.
Cate Reese, who was recruited by Texas A&M, where her parents earned their degrees, is the tallest Arizona starter at 6-2.
The Aggies are 56th in the nation with a rebound margin of 4.6 a game while Arizona is 169th at minus-0.2 a game.
Stats are one thing, emotions are another. Arizona is playing in its first Sweet 16 game since 1997-98 when the Wildcats played UConn tough until the Huskies pulled away in the last 5 minutes for a 94-77. Adia Barnes scored 17 points in that game as a senior All-American.
Arizona Career Blocked Shot Leaders
“Right now, we’re inexperienced. We’ve never done this,” Barnes said. “This is uncharted territory for us. It hasn’t been easy. But I’m just so proud of the way we’ve handled it.”
Only three years ago, in her second season as coach at her alma mater, Barnes’ team went 6-24 after losing its last seven games by an average of 22 points.
Now, the Wildcats are in position once again to advance to their first Elite Eight in program history.
“To be in the Sweet 16 is amazing. No one believed it,” Barnes said.
No. 3 Arizona Wildcats
18-5 overall, 13-4 Pac-12
NET ranking: No. 15
Big Wins: Dec. 4 No. 8 UCLA (68-65), Jan. 14 No. 10 Oregon (57-41), Jan. 17 No. 36 Oregon State (67-51), Feb. 8 at No. 10 Oregon (79-59), March 24 No. 50 BYU (52-46).
Bad Loss: Feb. 28 at No. 95 Arizona State (66-64 OT)
Coach: Adia Barnes (86-65, fifth season)
- G Aari McDonald, Sr., 19.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.4 apg, 2.8 spg
- G Bendu Yeaney, Jr., 4.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.3 apg
- F Sam Thomas, Sr., 7.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.5 apg, 2.3 spg, 1.2 bpg
- F Trinity Baptiste, Sr., 8.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg
- F Cate Reese, Jr., 11.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg
Key Role Players:
- G Helena Pueyo, Soph., 3.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.6 spg
- F Lauren Ware, Fr., 4.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.2 bpg
- G Shaina Pellington, Jr., 5.7 ppg
- G Madi Conner, Fr., 1.0 ppg
By the Numbers:
- Scoring Offense: 66.5 (132nd in nation)
- Scoring Defense: 55.1 (14)
- Field-Goal Percentage: 41.3 (117)
- Field-Goal Percentage Defense: 36.4 (30)
- Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 5.8 (179)
- Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 32.6 (103)
- Free-Throw Percentage: 69.7 (178)
- Rebound Margin: -0.2 (169)
- Assists Per Game: 11.7 (232)
- Turnovers Per Game: 12.7 (26)
NCAA tournament appearance: Eighth
Furthest NCAA tournament run: Sweet 16 in 1997-98
No. 2 Texas A&M Aggies
25-2 overall, 13-1 SEC
Big Wins: Jan. 7 No. 18 Kentucky (77-60), Jan. 31 No. 13 Georgia (60-48), Feb. 28 No. 4 South Carolina (65-57), March 24 No. 26 Iowa State (84-82, OT).
Bad Loss: Jan. 14 at No. 61 LSU (65-61)
Coach: Gary Blair (430-169, 18th season at Texas A&M; 837-332, 36th season overall)
- G Jordan Nixon, Soph., 10.9 ppg, 3.2 apg
- G Aaliyah Wilson, Sr., 12.6 ppg, 2.6 apg, 5.8 rpg
- G Kayla Wells, Sr., 11.4 ppg, 1.9 apg
- F N’dea Jones, Sr., 12.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg
- C Ciera Johnson, Sr., 10.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg
Key Role Players:
- G Destiny Pitts, Sr., 7.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg
- G Alexis Morris, Jr., 6.1 ppg, 1.3 apg
By the Numbers:
- Scoring Offense: 75.8 (24th in nation)
- Scoring Defense: 62.2 (103)
- Field-Goal Percentage: 46.9 (13)
- Field-Goal Percentage Defense: 38.1 (73)
- Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 4.7 (262)
- Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 37.7 (9)
- Free-Throw Percentage: 72.9 (91)
- Rebound Margin: 4.6 (56)
- Assists Per Game: 13.9 (113)
- Turnovers Per Game: 14.4 (85)
NCAA tournament appearance: 16th
Furthest NCAA tournament run: National championship in 2010-11
History against Arizona: 3-2, last meeting on Nov. 26, 2010, when the Aggies beat Arizona 87-78 in a holiday tournament in Cancun, Mexico. Texas A&M won the national title that season. Arizona won the first two meetings in 1996-97 and 1997-98 with Barnes was a junior and senior.
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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.