Arizona tips off against UNLV at 7 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA tournament at McKale Center. The game will be televised live on ESPN2 (broadcasters are Ann Schatz and Dan Hughes) and broadcast on radio live at KTUC 1400-AM with Brody Dryden calling the action. Only a few tickets remain for $35 for all three sessions Saturday and Monday. Click here to purchase. As of Saturday morning, the entire upperdeck of McKale Center was sold out and only a few tickets remained behind each basket in the middle concourse level. North Carolina plays Stephen F. Austin at 4:30 p.m. in the other first-round game.
The leading questions heading into Saturday’s matchup between No. 13-seeded UNLV (26-6) and No. 4 Arizona (20-7) at McKale Center with the tipoff at 7 p.m. —
— The Lady Rebels achieved 26 wins for the first time in 18 years strongly behind a 16-1 stretch during the season, but how does their competition in the Mountain West compare to Arizona’s in the Pac-12?
The Wildcats were 6-5 against the NET top 50 entering March Madness while UNLV did not face a team of that ilk all season. The Lady Rebels’ top win was against No. 101 New Mexico 85-79 at home Jan. 27. Arizona defeated the Lobos 77-60 at McKale Center on Dec. 12, the game after losing Lauren Ware to a dislocated knee cap injury.
Arizona’s best win was against No. 5 Louisvile 61-59 in overtime on Nov. 12 at Sioux Falls, S.D. The Wildcats’ worst loss was a 76-67 setback to No. 74 USC on Jan. 9 in Los Angeles. UNLV’s worst loss was 84-62 on Nov. 17 at No. 171 NAU, a team the Wildcats beat 82-55 in Flagstaff on Dec. 17.
What does all of this mean? If you ask the coaches Adia Barnes and Lindy La Rocque, the answer would be: “Nothing.”
As our sage sportswriter Steve Rivera would say, “It’s all about how you play that day.”
Wow: According to the ticket seating map at Arizona’s site, all the upper level seats at McKale Center have been sold out and a few remain behind each basket at the middle level for today’s NCAA tournament games. Appears that at least 12,000 fans will be there today.
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 19, 2022
“I think there’s some good matchups there (with Arizona). I mean, I think we are really talented. I think they are very talented too But it’s not a David and Goliath situation. I just don’t believe that. … If we execute, take care of the ball and rebound, it can be anyone’s game,” La Rocque said earlier this week in Las Vegas.
Barnes mentioned Friday during Arizona’s press conference: “We, by no means, approach this game like it’s a mismatch. We know they’re a very good team and they’re capable of winning. In my opinion, they’re better than a 13 seed.”
— What makes UNLV not a David to Arizona’s Goliath or better than a No. 13 seed?
Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding and a good amount of junior guard Essence Booker’s play and leadership.
With 3 starters from Vegas, hometown pride will be on full display tonight when the @UNLVLadyRebels play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years. Essence Booker shares what it means to be from Las Vegas. #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/PPrDIB2cFu
— Tina Nguyen (@ttinanguyen) March 19, 2022
UNLV has four players with at least 100 rebounds this season — Desi-Rae Young (6-foot-1 senior post player) with 269, Nneka Obiazor (5-10 sophomore forward) with 187, Justice Ethridge (5-9 sophomore guard) with 118 and Booker (5-8 junior guard) with 115.
Arizona, which, of course, has played five games less than UNLV, has only one player with more than 100 rebounds — senior forward Cate Reese with 148. Ware, a 6-3 sophomore post, has 90, Koi Love, a 6-foot junior forward, has 88 and Ariyah Copeland, a 6-3 senior graduate transfer, has 88.
Arizona’s top rebounders are noticeably forwards amd post players while UNLV’s leading rebounders are guards or small forwards, with the exception of Young, who is averaging 8.4 rebounds a game.
Going against a bigger lineup than usual, Young was asked Friday UNLV’s approach to rebounding in this game.
“Just box out. That’s how we’re going to be able to get the rebound is just box out,” said Young, one of three starters from Las Vegas on UNLV’s roster, including Booker and Ethridge. “They do have a little bit of size on us, so we know we’re going to have to box out, and everyone’s going to have to do that.”
Ware mentioned that boxing out has been stressed in their workouts as well.
“Boxing out is something we’ve been focusing on for the past couple games and I think we’ve improved a lot in that
area,” said Ware, who had 19 rebounds in Arizona’s two previous games against USC and Colorado. “I think we’re ready to show that we’re a good rebounding team offensively and defensively. I think we’re going to be pretty good in that area.”
UNLV has an average rebounding margin of 40.5 to 33.8 while Arizona is averaging less rebounds than its opponents — 32.9 to 33.2.
Barnes expects Arizona to use its size to its advantage against the Lady Rebels.
“They are relentless on boards, especially even offensively, their guards,” Barnes said of UNLV. “But I think that also mid-major, the posts are typically smaller, and I think Pac-12, we’re typically a lot bigger. So some of their players are 5-10 and we’re 6-3 to 6-5, so it’s just a little bit different.”
Booker is certainly UNLV’s catalyst in many areas.
She leads the Lady Rebels in scoring (15.6 points a game), assists (3.8), steals (1.5) and free-throw shooting percentage (88.7). She is also the only UNLV player averaging more than 30 minutes a game at 32.8.
How she goes, mostly like is how UNLV will go.
Expect Arizona to defend Booker with a carousel of Bendu Yeaney, Shaina Pellington, Helena Pueyo and maybe even Sam Thomas — all elite defenders.
“We know that we have to slow her down and control her and she’s going to score, because she’s a good player but we have to make her work hard to score,” Barnes said. “She will feel pressure. We have to do that.”
⏳ 24 hours ⌛️ pic.twitter.com/oFJdwAGqcb
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 19, 2022
— What about Arizona’s offensive execution? Are the Wildcats ready to turn it up a notch in the March Madness?
In their last five games — three of them without the injured Reese because of her separated shoulder — the Wildcats made only 34.5 percent of their shots from the field and 25.7 percent from 3-point range. Both numbers are far below their season totals. They are shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from beyond the arc in their 27 games overall.
The Wildcats had scoring totals of 51 against Washington (16 at halftime), 46 against UCLA (in a 64-46 loss) and 43 against Colorado (45-43 defeat at the Pac-12 tournament) in the last month, with Reese out against the Bruins and Buffaloes.
For Arizona to advance, players who can shoot and score must step up, including Thomas, Pueyo, Madison Conner and Taylor Chavez. Reese must be fluid in her inside-outside ability. Ware must connect in the paint. Pellington must stay out of foul trouble while being fearless driving all the way to the basket to either shoot, draw fouls or kick out to an open shooter. Driving into the lane and then dribbling out has stalled Arizona’s execution. Love and Yeaney must also provide a boost with pivotal shots off their defense.
Barnes said she expects a zone defense because Colorado’s was effective in the last game. How will Arizona adjust to that?
Arizona — Adia Barnes achieved her 100th win at Arizona in January in her sixth season at her alma mater. Her record is 109-73 (which is also her career mark). She is 89-33 (.729) since starting 20-40 in her first two seasons of rebuilding the program. In her first NCAA tournament experience as a head coach last year, Barnes was 5-1 advancing all the way to the championship game against Stanford. She was 6-0 with a WNIT title at the end of the 2018-19 season. So her postseason coaching record is 11-1.
UNLV — Lindy La Rocque, in her second season at UNLV, is coaching for the first time in the NCAA tournament. She is 41-15 with the Lady Rebels in her first head coaching position, including a Mountain West regular-season and conference tournament championship this season. A former Stanford player, La Rocque coached under Tara VanDerveer with the Cardinal from 2017-20 after serving as an assistant at Oklahoma and Belmont.
— UNLV Lady Rebels (@UNLVLadyRebels) March 18, 2022
WHEN ARIZONA HAS THE BALL
— The loss of Reese to a separated shoulder on Feb. 20 had its ill-effects on Arizona’s offensive execution with recent losses of 64-46 to UCLA and home and 45-43 against Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament. The Wildcats have two players averaging more than 10 points a game — Reese (14.6) and Pellington (10.9). Look for them to try establish an inside-outside attack with Reese “100 percent” and ready to go in her first game back, according to Barnes.
— With this her last go-around in March Madness, Sam Thomas figures to be more of an offensive presence. She is one of Arizona’s better 3-point shooters at 42.5 percent, which took a dip after she made 1 of 8 from beyond the arc against Colorado. She’s close to Arizona’s single-season record for 3-point percentage of 44.2 percent held by former Willcox standout Shawn Coder in 1993-94.
— Arizona must cause havoc on defense to generate its offense in transition. The Wildcats force 19.0 turnovers a game with their full-court “Arizona Defense,” and they rely on those turnovers to fuel their fast-break opportunities. Interesting to note that in Arizona’s last five games, when it has struggled offensively, it has scored less than 10 points in fast-break opportunities four times — six against Washington, four against Washington State, six against UCLA and eight against Colorado. Arizona averages 12.6 fast-break points a game.
— Young is active in the post with her quickness tallying 29 steals and 16 blocked shots and the Lady Rebels will need that with her going against Arizona’s taller players. UNLV can’t afford to have her get into foul trouble. She has three of UNLV’s four foul-outs this season.
— Booker, with her 48 steals, is one of four players with at least 30 steals. The others are Ethridge (33) and Kiara Jackson (30).
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 19, 2022
WHEN UNLV HAS THE BALL
— The bulk of UNLV’s shots and scoring comes from Booker and Young but La Rocque’s lineup goes seven deep with capable players in that regard. Booker at the point and Young at the post have taken 37.9 percent of UNLV’s shots this season and have scored 40.6 percent of the points.
— A player with strong Tucson roots, Alyssa Durazo-Frescas (the only freshman starter among the four teams in Tucson) leads the Lady Rebels from 3-point range shooting 43.4 percent. She has also tried the most shots (145) from beyond the arc for UNLV.
— UNLV averages 11.8 offensive rebounds a game, led by Obiazor’s 2.6 per game. The Rebels are quick to the ball and scrappy. They try to score and draw fouls off the offensive boards.
— Arizona will try to wreak havoc with its full-court “Arizona Defense” ranking first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (56.8 points a game), turnovers forced (19.0) and steals (10.5).
— Sam Thomas’ defense will be key to match against UNLV’s perimeter quickness and toughness. She is looking to become only the second player in Arizona history to reach 200 career blocked shots and she is closing in becoming No. 3 in career steals in program history. She has 196 blocked shots (Shawntinice Polk is the record-holder with 222) and 258 steals (Reshea Bristol is No. 3 with 260).
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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