Led by Shaina Pellington’s scoring and an all-around performance from Esmery Martinez, Arizona avoided a late-game collapse to pull away from California 80-57 on Sunday afternoon at McKale Center.
“Games this time of the year are really ugly. I thought we did some really good things today after a tough loss against Stanford,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “But, there was an end of third quarter really tough patch with a lot of different combinations that we turned the ball over and couldn’t handle the press and gave (Cal) a lot of momentum.”
Regular starters Lauren Fields and Jade Loville came off the bench with Helena Pueyo and Madison Conner getting the start, a move Barnes made to experiment with player combinations.
Freshman guard Paris Clark saw early minutes for Arizona, entering with 2:48 left in the quarter and scoring a fastbreak layup with 1:23 left.
Fields hit a 3-pointer to put Arizona up 12-10 with 22 seconds left in the opening quarter, following a Martinez block.
“I think there’s sometimes when you have to shake things up, so people have more of a sense of urgency. I had a great talk with (Fields) today, and I believe in her,” Barnes said.
Arizona (19-6, 9-5 Pac-12) went up on California (12-13, 3-11) by a score of 55-31 after Loville hit a jumper with 2:31 left in the third quarter.
The Golden Bears closed the quarter on a 9-0 run from six points in the paint, followed by a 3-pointer by Leilani McIntosh that closed the gap to 55-40 entering the fourth quarter.
California opened the fourth quarter with three consecutive layups: two from Ugonne Onyiah and one from Karisma Ortiz, extending its scoring run to 15-0, and cutting Arizona’s lead to 55-46.
The Golden Bears’ full-court press defense forced Arizona into six fourth-quarter turnovers.
Onyiah hit a jumper with 4:59 left to bring the Golden Bears within seven points of the Wildcats at 61-54 before Arizona found ways to break the press and score in transition, finishing the game on a 19-3 run, predominantly off points in the paint.
Martinez came three assists shy of a triple-double, scoring 15 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. She passed the 1,000 mark in career rebounds in the third quarter.
Barnes was especially impressed with the passing from Martinez.
“Typically, our assists don’t come from the post, and they sometimes have more turnovers than assists,” she said. “So for her to have seven assists and three turnovers is a really good fit.”
Pellington scored 19 points in the second half and led all scorers with 24 points and three assists.
“I think I just came into the game composed,” Pellington said. “I know that last game, we didn’t play the way that we wanted to, and we had a couple days of practice to get a feel for things again.
“I feel like my mindest this game was to let the game come to me and make shots when I take them and get my teammates good shots as well.”
Arizona held a 33-20 lead over California at half.
The Wildcats defense led to offense in the second quarter. California was forced into a shot clock violation on its first possession.
At the 6:48 mark, a layup from Reese put Arizona up 20-14.
Fields, typically known for her defense, continued to establish herself on offense, scoring five straight points for the Wildcats off an inside floater and a 3-pointer assisted by Pellington on a fast break to put the Wildcats up 22-16 with 5:18 left in the second quarter.
Cate Reese scored six points straight points to put Arizona up 31-18 with 1:17 left in the half.
Arizona stretched its lead to 33-18 – its largest lead of the first half – after Clark made a second-chance layup with 38 seconds on the clock.
Arizona, which lost to Stanford 84-60 on Thursday, has shown its mettle to lose consecutive games only once all season.
“I think the difference is that we weren’t happy with how we performed against Stanford, and I think we came back and had a really good bounce-back game,” Barnes said. “You look at Kansas, then look at how we played against Baylor. All the games we’ve lost, we responded well.”
Arizona will enter Friday’s matchup with No. 7 Utah (22-2, 12-2) at McKale Center at 7 p.m. with little margin for error if it hopes to secure a place in the top-four of the conference, which guarantees a bye the first day of the Pac-12 tournament March 1-5.
Utah beat Arizona 80-79 at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City when the referees whistled Martinez for a foul with 0.3 seconds left, allowing Alissa Pili to make two game-winning free throws.
“I think just understanding now: How do we make that step and become a better team? How do we focus on these next games one game at a time? We’re focused on Utah,” Barnes said. “Yeah, we won today, but what can we do better than we did last time against them to win? I think just understanding and narrowing our focus is what we have to do right now, but I don’t want to have to take losses to come back and be reset.”
Reese had 15 points and three rebounds.
Fields finished with 10 points and three assists.
Clark had nine points, six rebounds and two assists.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writer Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. Murphy is a journalist product manager with the Green Valley News & the Sahuarita Sun. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU.