Arizona’s open practice for 15 minutes Friday in front of the local media was not one in which the Wildcats went through the motions, as is typically seen in this situation during the NCAA tournament.
Arizona did not shoot around and do layup drills for the cameras.
Adia Barnes went full-bore into the full-court drills with she and her husband Salvo Coppa, her lead assistant, stopping play and shouting out directions often. The intensity level was high, which is what one would expect from a Barnes coached team.
Koi Love, wearing the gold jersey distinguishing herself as the top practice player for the week, sensed some angst among her teammates in trying to get the drills down to a T and mentioned to the group, “Calm down and play basketball.”
Welcome to March Madness at McKale Center.
Barnes, who won two NCAA tournament games at McKale with the Wildcats in 1998, is ready to roll.
No. 4-seeded Arizona (20-7) will host No. 13 UNLV (26-6) at 7 p.m. on Saturday, after No. 5 North Carolina (23-6) plays No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (28-4) at 4:30 p.m. in the other first-round game.
“I like any matchup in March,” Barnes said when asked about the matchup with the Lady Rebels, who won the Mountain West regular season and conference tournament championships. “I don’t love (No. 1 overall seed) South Carolina or someone like that, but besides that, I think if you looked at the bracket last year, if people looked at that with big eyes, like, oh, UConn, Texas A&M … I think anybody can beat anybody.”
Barnes acknowledged more than once in Friday’s press conference that UNLV is “a very good team and very capable of beating anybody.”
Arizona struggled down the stretch losing four of its last seven games, including a 45-43 loss on March 3 against Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals in which the Wildcats shot 25 percent from the field, including 2 of 24 from 3-point range.
In the last five games — three of them without the injured Cate Reese because of a separated shoulder — the Wildcats made only 34.5 percent of their shots from the field and 25.7 percent from 3-point range. For the season, they are shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from beyond the arc.
UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque was asked by the Las Vegas media Wednesday about whether UNLV’s defense can exploit Arizona’s struggles on offense, especially with Aari McDonald no longer on the team after being an offensive catalyst during the Wildcats’ run to the NCAA tournament championship game last year.
“First off, Arizona is a tremendous team, and their defense is incredible,” La Rocque said. “They are long at every position. They’re extremely athletic and they’re aggressive. While it may not be similar to their last season of Aari scoring 30 points, their defense is maybe that much better.
“They rely on that to really spur their offense, but they have very, very capable offensive players. They’re not totally weak in one area. I think their defense is probably, I would imagine, what they hang their hat on, because they’re forcing almost 20 turnovers a game and getting points that way.”
Arizona is forcing 19.0 turnovers a game and UNLV is averaging 14.1.
Barnes was asked about the inefficiencies of her team’s offensive execution, especially as of late, evidenced by the rough performance against Colorado. The Buffaloes committed 21 turnovers and the Wildcats cashed in with 19 points off those turnovers but they did not use Colorado’s mishaps to their advantage.
One of the reasons was Arizona’s inability to solve Colorado’s zone defense.
Another, more significant reason, was the Wildcats having to still adjust their execution without Reese’s scoring production of 14.6 points in the game.
“What made it hard for us was adjusting to Cate gone and not having a presence inside,” Barnes said. “We had a guard (Helena Pueyo) playing the 4 (power forward position), and then going 2-of-24 from the 3.
“We’re typically 36, 37 percent. I don’t think that will happen again. I think a lot of those shots will fall. We had open good looks and they just could not fall.”
Barnes said Arizona is preparing for UNLV to use a zone defense against her team because of how effective Colorado was against the Wildcats.
“I think learning that you don’t live and die with the 3, and learning to move the ball and get a layup, we’ve worked a lot against that, because I know that we’re going to be zoned,” Barnes said. “Having Cate in the middle, wanting the ball at the freethrow line, having another rebounder inside, I think it’s very different.
“If Cate played in the Pac-12 tournament, I think we would have had a lot of a better chance to be more successful, just because of the chemistry and her and Lauren (Ware) playing together and just knowing each other, not playing people out of position.”
Shaina Pellington will also have to be more of a playmaker and scorer, similar to what she showed this time of year in last season’s championship game against Stanford when she had 15 points.
Perimeter shooters such as Thomas, Madison Conner and Taylor Chavez must also play more to their ability and make close to 38.4 percent of their shots from 3-point range (what they have combined to shoot this season) and not the 1-of-15 performance beyond the arc they had against Colorado.
“I do think I anticipate being zoned (against UNLV), not a ton, but I anticipate the zone press and the zone (halfcourt),” Barnes said. “But I am okay with that because of our personnel. I wouldn’t mind that at all. We will not shoot 2-of-24 ever again.”
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.