Arizona’s offensive execution and defensive intensity looked out of sorts Sunday in a game that was not originally scheduled but was a makeup for the Dec. 31 game at USC that was postponed because of COVID-19 protocol within the Trojans’ program.
Contributing to the awkward nature of the game were no fans in the stands at the Galen Center with only family and close friends of the players in attendance.
The result was a 76-67 loss against the Trojans, ending fourth-ranked Arizona’s prolonged unbeaten start of the season. The Wildcats are now 11-1 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12 while USC improved to 8-4 and 1-1.
Arizona’s five-game winning streak against USC was snapped. The Wildcats lost to the Trojans, under first-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb, for the first time since the 2017-18 season.
“I want to give credit to USC for just being more intense; coming out, they really punched us in the face,” Adia Barnes said. “I think that we never really responded. I thought that our defensive intensity was just a step behind the whole game.”
USC reserve guard Alyson Miura, who was coming off a scoreless performance at Colorado on Friday, finished with 15 points, including a 4-of-4 performance from 3-point range in the fourth quarter. She played in only her second game since Dec. 15 but looked like she never skipped a beat in the final 10 minutes.
Miura’s performance was indicative of Arizona being lethargic and a step slow on defense traveling to Los Angeles and playing less than 48 hours after Friday’s 60-52 win over Washington State. All of her fourth-quarter 3-pointers occurred without a defender in her face.
“The way we guard, the staggers and stuff, we got lost (and had a) lack of communication,” Barnes said about Arizona’s perimeter defense. “That’s not something we normally do. I just attribute a lot of that to a lack of focus. … We have to bring our best game every game. We have a target on our back.”
That perfect storm — rescheduled game, little to no fans, quick turnaround and also roster disruptions — all became factors in the loss although Barnes understandably did not want to make excuses.
Shaina Pellington did not travel with the team. She also did not attend Friday’s game at McKale Center. Helena Pueyo again started in Pellington’s place and did not commit a turnover in 34 minutes after achieving the same feat in 36 minutes against Washington State.
Barnes mentioned after the game against Washington State and reiterated it again Sunday that her team must be prepared for players potentially missing games because of COVID-19 protocol.
She did not say specifically that Pellington is in protocol. She is unable to speak directly about a player’s health without consent because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rule for college student-athetes.
Lauren Ware also missed her fourth game since suffering a dislocated left knee Dec. 9 against North Dakota State. Ariyah Copeland again started in her place.
Barnes said that Pellington and Ware will return Thursday in the scheduled game at Oregon State.
“Missing Shaina, it’s a lot,” Barnes said. “She is one of our best defenders and her and Bendu (Yeaney) together are really incredible in the press. We look really different.
“And then with Lauren inside, she is one of our best post defenders. Lauren is a rim protector, a shot blocker and having her inside would have matched up well with USC. … but that’s no excuse. We didn’t lose because we didn’t have Shaina and Lauren. Are we better with them? No doubt. Completely. But that’s not why we lost. We lost because of a lack of intensity.”
Cate Reese carried the load for Arizona most of the game with 29 points on 9-of-21 shooting from the field, including making all nine of her free throw attempts, but she also committed seven of the Wildcats’ 14 turnovers.
USC scored 22 points off of Arizona’s turnovers.
Reese kept Arizona close making two free throws with 2:32 left to cut the lead to 65-63.
USC responded with eight unanswered points including two 3-pointers by Miura to increase the lead to 73-63 and shut the door with 1:05 left.
Before Miura’s late barrage, the game was tight with 16 lead changes and 10 ties.
USC shot 57.1 percent from the field in the fourth quarter, 56.0 percent in the second half.
Arizona shot 36.1 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from beyond the arc in the game.
Yeaney was the only other scorer in double figures for Arizona with 12 points and she had eight assists.
Madison Conner had nine points but shot 3 of 12 from the field, 1 of 8 from 3-point range.
Pueyo had eight points but was scoreless in the second half while missing three shots.
Veteran captain Sam Thomas missed all eight of her field-goal attempts and finished with three points.
Valuable rotation players Copeland, Taylor Chavez, Koi Love and Aaronette Vonleh combined for four points with only three shots attempted. Arizona’s bench was outscored 30-13.
“We didn’t match their fight. They came out and jumped on us. We were on our heels,” Barnes said. “We fought a little bit … our characteristics and who we are, we come back and we bring it. We were unable to sustain that. And so for me, that was a mental thing.”
The Trojans were competitive despite leading scorer Jordan Sanders (11.9 points per game) out of the lineup after injuring a knee at Colorado on Friday. The Buffaloes, who beat USC 71-58 in that game, are the lone unbeaten team now in the Pac-12 at 13-0 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-12.
After Arizona and USC were tied at 34 at halftime, the Trojans mounted a 45-38 lead before Reese took over.
She scored 10 of Arizona’s 12 points in a 12-2 run, including a 3-pointer with 1:02 left in the third quarter that gave the Wildcats a 50-47 lead.
Reese had 12 of Arizona’s 16 points in the third quarter and enabled the Wildcat to lead 50-49 going into the fourth quarter.
After Arizona took a 59-58 lead with 5:28 left, Miura made 3-pointers on consecutive possessions and Arizona did not take a lead again.
Arizona looked like it could pull away early, taking a 13-4 lead with 4:43 left in the first quarter on a 3-pointer by Reese, but the Wildcats allowed the Trojans to immediately get back in the game with an 8-0 run.
A stretch of 10 straight missed shots by Arizona resulted in USC going on a 13-2 run to take a 32-24 lead with 2:54 remaining in the second quarter.
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) January 10, 2022
A jumper by reserve forward Gisela Sanchez with 2:31 left in the first half stopped the dryspell that lasted 6 minutes 52 seconds.
Conner then drilled her only 3-pointer of the game on the next possession to cut the lead to 32-29 with 1:49 remaining in the half.
Pueyo’s 3-pointer at the buzzer closed the half and tied the game at 34.
Reese, who reached 11 points by halftime, moved to No. 9 in the Arizona career scoring list ahead of Timi Brown (1987-91). Brown had 1,315 points. Reese now has 1,335.
Next up is what usually is a daunting trip to the Oregon schools — standard-bearers in the Pac-12 in terms of the NCAA tournament in recent years — coming off this disappointing loss to USC.
“We have to get better,” Barnes said. “We are going to be doing some basic things that we normally wouldn’t do this time of year and I am okay with that. For me with the wins and losses, if we’re going to lose two more games because we’re working on certain things, so be it.
“We are not as good as we should be right now and there are factors. But there’s factors all over the country. Probably half of the country’s going through COVID protocol and missing players. That’s an excuse to me. That’s why you have a good team with depth because other people have to step up. I don’t like those excuses. I think that there’s still a system and a level of intensity that has to be consistent.”
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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.