It took three overtimes for No. 22 Arizona in games against UCLA and USC on Friday and Sunday to come away with a gritty sweep of the Bruins and Trojans in Los Angeles for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
“This was a huge win for us,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said in the KTUC 1400-AM postgame show following Sunday’s 81-75 double-overtime win against USC. “Just to come here and show resiliency after that loss (last Sunday against Washington State at McKale Center) and not hang our heads. Big win at UCLA, both in overtime, it was a long weekend for us.
“I’m just proud of our players, how everybody stepped up at different times. In different parts of the game, people carried us.”
The difference in the win over USC was Cate Reese’s career-high 33 points and the play of freshman reserve Maya Nnaji. The seven points and eight rebounds from Nnaji off the bench were essential to help make up for the late absence of Esmery Martinez, who fouled out in the first overtime.
“Maya was huge because Esmery was in foul trouble,” Barnes said. “Maya came up with some big blocks and the big shot that tied it (late in the first overtime). She stepped up in a situation where she has no experience.
“(Reese) was a beast. I mean she really dominated their posts. You know what I love about it? She got her shot blocked like four times but she didn’t care. She kept on going at them. Her toughness and her seniority — it was just a great game.”
Arizona had to play without Martinez after 2:13 remained in the first overtime after she picked up her fifth foul. She did not score but had eight rebounds. It was the first time Martinez, a transfer from West Virginia, has not scored this season.
In the second overtime, Jade Loville, who finished with 17 points, made a 3-pointer with 3:20 left to give Arizona a 73-70 lead.
Kadi Sissoko cut the lead to 73-72 with 2:05 remaining.
Loville and Reese could not convert in the next possession and Rayah Marshall drew a foul on Reese, her fourth.
Marshall, who had 17 points and 20 rebounds, made one of two free throws to tie the game at 73 with 1:40 left.
Loville’s jump shot with 43.6 seconds remaining put Arizona back ahead.
Sissoko then put up an airball with 20.0 seconds left.
Arizona called timeout with the 75-73 lead.
Helena Pueyo made two free throws with 15 seconds left and Reese drained four of them in the last 7 seconds to secure the victory.
“She’s fearless and that’s what makes her special,” Reese continued about Reese. “She really dominated and carried us for a large part of the game.”
Arizona, which went 2 for 10 from 3-point range in regulation, made its first two shots from beyond the arc in the first overtime.
Reese and Loville’s jumpers from that distance helped the Wildcats to a 64-62 lead with 3:05 left.
Pellington’s steal and layup then pushed the lead to 66-62.
Sissoko and Rokia Doumbia (17 points before fouling out) each made two free throws in the Trojans’ next possessions to tie the game at 66 with 1:42 remaining in the first overtime.
Shaina Pellington (17 points and seven assists) then missed both free-throw attempts with 1:19 left.
After Nnaji blocked a shot by Marshall, Arizona turned the ball over on Madison Conner‘s offensive foul with 41 seconds left. Nnaji finished with three blocked shots.
Sissoko capped a 6-0 run with a shot on the block over Reese to give USC a 68-66 lead with 15.7 seconds left in the first overtime.
Nnaji then hit a baseline jumper with 5.7 seconds left off a pass from Pellington to tie the game.
Barnes said the play was not drawn for Nnaji to take the shot.
“It just worked out that way because they kind of overplayed our on-ball (Pellington driving), so she was open,” Barnes said. “It was a huge shot.”
Destiny Littleton, who led USC with 21 points, missed a jumper in the lane as time expired, forcing a second overtime.
The Wildcats, who went on a 15-0 run from regulation into overtime in Friday’s win at UCLA, had an about-face late in regulation against USC.
Arizona couldn’t hold its 43-36 lead with 8:48 left after Reese made a put-back hook-shoot in the lane.
USC went on a 9-2 run that included a 3-pointer by Okaka Adika and two baskets by Marshall.
The Wildcats showed efficiency with only 10 turnovers in the 50 minutes of the game. They had 17 assists.
The victory improves Arizona to 18-5 overall and 8-4 in the Pac-12. The Wildcats host No. 2 Stanford (22-3, 10-2) on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The Cardinal is coming off an 82-77 setback at Washington on Sunday.
The Wildcats are alone in fourth place in the Pac-12 with USC (17-6, 7-5) in fifth after the Trojans’ loss.
The top four teams at the end of the regular season earn a bye to the second day of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas March 1-5.
“This was a huge weekend to come to LA and get the sweep,” Barnes said. “USC should be ranked. UCLA is a top 25 team (ranked No. 14). So this was huge for us. I think this will be the turning point of our season.
“We were in a not-so-great situation (after the loss to Washington State). And now I think we just opened a lot of things up. That’s great.”
Arizona’s last six games include Stanford and Cal at home this week, games with Colorado and Utah at McKale Center the following week and then the regular season-ending trip to Oregon and Oregon State.
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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.