It’s cliché, beyond cliché, to mention that fans played a part in a victory.
But if there was ever a time Arizona needed the McKale Center crowd for support, it was entering the fourth quarter against UNLV in the first round game of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.
The Rebels led by five points and the Wildcats needed a jolt.
This is why teams with strong fan support want the NCAA selection committee to make them a host.
The Wildcats, spurred by the frenzied partisan crowd at McKale, outscored UNLV 24-14 in the fourth quarter behind Shaina Pellington’s 13 points in the period to win 72-67.
“Arizona is a basketball town,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “People love women’s basketball here. Very few places will draw about 10,000 fans here. When you have a chance to play in that type of crowd it ignites you. Our players do a good job of engaging our fans and the fans love them.”
No. 4-seeded Arizona (21-7) will play No. 5 North Carolina (24-6) in the second round on Monday at 7 p.m. at McKale Center. The Tar Heels defeated Stephen F. Austin 79-66 in the other first round game.
Pellington did her best impression of Aari McDonald finishing with 30 points against the Lady Rebels. She made 10 of 19 shots from the field, including a couple of 3-pointers. She also finished with four assists.
“I think I was just comfortable,” Pellington said of her scoring performance, which ties her Arizona career-high. “Once I start hitting threes, I feel like I’m really in my element. I’m like, ‘Okay, they can’t guard me,’ especially when I was attacking the rim, as well.
“I just felt super comfortable, and I think my teammates allowed me to do that. They gave me the confidence.”
Cate Reese made a triumphant return from her dislocated shoulder injury with 16 points, nine in the fourth quarter.
Lauren Ware bolstered Arizona’s inside presence, that was challenged by UNLV post players Desi-Rae Young, Khayla Rooks (daughter of Arizona great Sean Rooks) and reserve Nneka Obiazor.
— Andy Morales (@AndyMorales8) March 20, 2022
The Lady Rebels (26-7) outrebounded Arizona 36-22 but the contributions of Reese and Ware (nine points and seven rebounds) were just enough.
Arizona hosted the NCAA tournament first and second rounds for the first time since the 1997-98 season, when the Wildcats beat Santa Clara and Virginia with Barnes in the lineup.
It was a partisan Arizona crowd of more than 10,000 with about 200 to 300 fans cheering for UNLV in attendance, many of them family members and friends of former Sahuaro standout Alyssa Brown and also Alyssa Durazo-Frescas, whose family roots are in Tucson.
Brown had the opportunity to play in the waning seconds and she converted a 3-point play.
“I don’t know if the crowd gave them points,” UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque, whose godfather was the late Lute Olson, said of the McKale fans. “It got loud and it made the momentum swings more drastic, that’s what a crowd does. But what a great crowd. What they’ve been able to build here is awesome.”
Arizona outscored UNLV 15-3 to start the fourth quarter to make the end of the game less stressful.
On the flipside, the Lady Rebels became undone.
A technical foul by La Rocque, after Young fouled out, helped the Wildcats extend their lead to 71-59 with 1:26 remaining.
Young had 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field and pulled down 11 rebounds.
“This is March, and it was everything that you pay for in your ticket,” La Rocque said. “Arizona is a fabulous team. I think Adia has done such a good job, and again, they played in the national championship game (last year) for
a reason. I think they really came at us with everything that they had.
“But I am really proud of our team. I think we made them really nervous, and we left it all out there for them, too, and I know they felt that.”
Reese had six points and Pellington added three when Arizona scored 11 unanswered points to take a 67-56 lead with 2:34 left.
UNLV missed four straight shots and committed two turnovers in that pivotal span.
“Why did we wait until the third quarter to play defense, because that sense of urgency that you saw on the ball pressure (in the fourth quarter), we need to have from the beginning, and we know that adjusting now,” Barnes said.
Arizona was again beset by shooting problems early and finally started to heat up at the end of the second quarter, outscoring UNLV 9-1 over the last 2:55 to take a 31-29 lead at halftime.
The Wildcats made nine of their last 12 shots in the quarter overall, including all three of their attempts in their late run.
Before the shots started to fall, Arizona was 3 of 16 (18.8 percent) from the field, showing a hangover from when it made only 25 percent of its shots in the 45-43 loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament two weeks ago.
The Wildcats’ shooting down the stretch of the second quarter put them at 42.9 percent at the half.
“A lot of people talk about that we struggle offensively,” Barnes said. “We’re not going to turn into some high-powered offensive team. That’s not us. When people say the word ‘struggle,’ it’s who we are. It’s who I choose to start, it’s our strengths and weaknesses, and our strength is not going to go out there and score 100 points.
“We need to go and play defense and manufacture points for offense.”
UNLV shot well from the field throughout the half, making 53.8 percent of its shots, but the Rebels missed all three of their 3-point attempts.
The Lady Rebels outscored Arizona 20-14 in the paint by halftime despite giving up some height to the taller Wildcats. Young (6-foot-1) and Ebiazor (5-10) combined for 19 points on 9-of-15 shooting at that point while their teammates combined for only five made field goals.
Essence Booker, UNLV’s catalyst, was held to four points on 2-of-4 shooting from the field. She finished with 12 points with five rebounds and five assists but she also had five turnovers matched up mostly against Pellington.
“I feel like every time I did try to push in transition or Kiara Jackson did, there was someone in our face, so just like zigzag up the court trying to take care of the ball every second of the game,” Booker said.
Pellington had 10 points and Reese five for Arizona at halftime, but Thomas did not score or even take a shot.
Thomas tried to set the tone immediately making a basket in the first few seconds of the second half, but it was UNLV that seized momentum.
The Lady Rebels outscored Arizona 24-17 in the third quarter behind the shooting Durazo-Frescas. She made all three of her 3-point attempts and UNLV was 8 of 12 overall from the field. Durazo-Frescas finished with 11 points.
UNLV led 53-48 going into the fourth quarter.
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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.