Led by a career-high 35-point performance from Shaina Pellington, No. 18 Arizona defeated No. 4 Utah 82-72 in front of 8,238 fans on Friday night at McKale Center.
“I’m really proud of this team. I thought it was a great win tonight, and just came out and battled against a really good Utah team,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “A very good offensive team that just finds ways to score and Pili (Alissa Pili) is a handful inside. They’re well coached, and I think we did a really good job, but they’re a good team. Thank God they were missing their threes, but a good win for us.”
Arizona was ahead 53-45 with 5:35 left in the third quarter when Barnes was called for a technical foul for arguing with an official after Pellington was called on a reaching foul going after a loose ball. Utah guard Isabel Palmer made four free throws to cut Arizona’s lead to 53-49, but the technical foul call ignited the home crowd and the team.
Arizona (20-6, 10-5 Pac-12) finished the quarter on a 10-4 run, to go up 63-53 heading into the fourth quarter.
“I thought we got momentum. I think it fired the crowd up,” Barnes said. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about that (getting the technical on purpose) because it gave up points. I usually don’t give up technicals, but I thought I needed to say what I wanted to say.”
Utah (22-3, 12-3) chipped away at Arizona’s lead in the fourth quarter, closing the deficit to 76-72 after Pili— who finished with 26 points, five rebounds and two assists— hit a free throw with 1:08 remaining in the game. The Wildcats made six free throws down the stretch, including the final two points from Pellington, to roll to an 82-72 win.
When asked if it was the best game of her career at Arizona, Pellington said, “Probably, yes. Yeah.”
“I would agree. Some of those shots were like, ‘no, no, yes!’” Barnes said. “It was like dribble, dribble, stop, fire. She was on fire… I thought she did a good job being patient and took shots that were open and shots you need to make. If she keeps on doing that, like she has been the last few games, they have to guard her differently, and then she’ll have more open layups.”
Arizona started the game playing lockdown defense on Utah, sometimes leading to transition points. Utah’s largest lead of the game came on its first bucket when a layup from Pili put the Utes up 2-0 under a minute into the game.
Pellington left off where she finished in the game against California on Sunday, in which she scored 24 points and had three assists, getting the Wildcats out to a 4-2 lead after a fastbreak layup at the 8:15 mark.
The Wildcats would extend their lead to 10-5 off a transition jumper from Pellington. Arizona further extended its lead to 15-7 when Cate Resse hit a jumper with 3:45 to go in the quarter.
Utah guard Kennady McQueen brought Utah within five with a three pointer on the next possession, cutting Arizona’s lead to 15-10. Pellington hit a three pointer of her own with 3:03 on the clock and followed it up with a layup on the Wildcats’ next possession to stretch the lead to 20-10. Utah cut into Arizona’s lead, and the Wildcats held a 22-17 lead after the first quarter.
Pellington kept her big night on offense rolling with a steal that led to her fastbreak layup to put Arizona up 24-17 at the 9:17 mark in the second quarter. Pili led Utah on a 5-0 scoring run— its largest of the game — hitting a 3-pointer followed by a jumper on the next possession to cut Arizona’s lead to 24-22 with 8:21 remaining in the quarter.
Pellington went down with an injury with 4:33 left in the half, but would return less than two minutes later. A second chance layup from Pili gave Utah a 40-39 lead with 1:40 to go, but Helena Pueyo regained the lead for Arizona with a three pointer on the next possession. Arizona made four of its last five field goals before the break.
The Wildcats held a 44-40 lead over Utah at halftime, with Pellington accounting for 23 of Arizona’s points.
Barnes was satisfied with the Wildcats’ effort on Friday night at McKale Center in front of more than 8,000 fans, especially on defense.
The Wildcats had 19 points off nine Utah turnovers.
“We know we wanted to show the crowd that we play with passion and pride here at Arizona, and I think they did that today. That’s Arizona basketball,” she said. “Not competing and stuff like that, that’s not us. So, I’m glad that we turned the corner, and we’re understanding we will win games when we play defensively like we did.”
Pellington also had eight rebounds, two assists and five steals. She finished 8-of-11 from the free throw line, well above her season average of 59 percent.
Pueyo had 12 points, two rebounds and four assists.
Reese had 16 points.
Arizona next plays No. 21 Colorado (21-5, 12-3) on Sunday at McKale Center.
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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.