December 4, 2020 

Will Arizona vs. UCLA be a battle of the role players?

Tertiary options could be decisive in this Pac-12 opener

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Arizona forward Sam Thomas dribbles near half court during the Nov. 29, 2020 game against Northern Arizona. Photo by Mike Mattina. Courtesy of Arizona Athletics.

When they spoke with the press on Wednesday, both Arizona head coach Adia Barnes and UCLA head coach Cori Close acknowledged that it was unlikely that their teams would be able to stop the preseason Associated Press All-Americans on the opposing squad. So what would be the key to getting a victory in this early-season clash of Top 10 teams?

Close thinks it will be how well the role players on each team step up to the challenge.

“We sort of know what we’re going to get from Aari (McDonald) and from Cate Reese, and I think that they probably would say the same about (Charisma Osborne) and Michaela (Onyenwere),” Close said. “I really think it’s going to be players like Camryn (Brown). It’s going to be players like Lauryn Miller, bringing the ball up. We’re really gonna rely on our versatility to bring the ball up versus their presses and things like that. And I really do believe it’s going to be the other players. It’s going to be the ones that step up in new roles and do things and make an impact.”

For the Bruins, Brown’s ability to be disruptive on defense and Miller’s ability to keep the team composed against Arizona’s disruptive defense are undoubtedly vital. For Arizona, it will be contributions from players like preseason All-Pac-12 honoree Sam Thomas and transfers Trinity Baptiste and Shaina Pellington that could be the deciding factor.

Thomas was a member of the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team last season and is able to guard multiple positions. She’s also proven that she can be a scoring threat when given the opening. Baptiste and Pellington both scored in double figures in their first appearances in Arizona uniforms on Nov. 29.

Last year, the teams’ first meeting was a match-up of two undefeated squads at Pauley Pavilion. After going into the locker room tied at halftime, UCLA took control with a dominant third quarter. The Bruins put the Wildcats away by outscoring them 28-13 in the period, going on to win 70-58.

When UCLA traveled to Tucson, the Wildcats did more than get revenge. They handed the Bruins their worst loss all season in a 92-66 blowout where Arizona never trailed.

“I was proud of the way we responded here,” Barnes said. “And I think here, it wasn’t our best game. I think our Stanford game was better, but it was one of the two best games.”

That response from Arizona still smarts for UCLA, but the Bruins know that the task won’t be any easier this time around.

“I’m actually really excited for this match-up,” Osborne said when asked about the likelihood of guarding McDonald. “Last time we played Arizona, we didn’t play the best. So I think all of us are just really excited to get that chance to win it back. But going into the game, I’m just gonna try to be aggressive and do what I do and kind of play defense on her. She’s a really great player. So just do the best I can.”

As Close suggested, it wasn’t necessarily the play of the stars that made the difference in the games last season. It was the third, fourth and fifth options.

In Westwood, Onyenwere and Osborne were joined by Chantal Horvat (10 points) and Japreece Dean (9 points) at or near double-figures. Perhaps more importantly, the Bruins got scoring help from eight different players.

Things were different when they went to Tucson. The two UCLA stars had considerably less help with only Miller’s eight-point effort nearing the mark.

On the other side of the court, McDonald, Reese and Thomas all reached two-figure scoring on the road. Just as happened to the Bruins on the road, the problem for the Wildcats was that they only got scoring help from three of their teammates. The trio of McDonald, Reese and Thomas did over 70 percent of the scoring that day and the team only shot 33 percent from the field.

In Tucson, 13 Wildcats saw time on the floor. Eleven of them put at least one point on the board. The trio of McDonald (27 points), Reese (13 points) and Thomas (20 points) once again led the way, but Amari Carter and Helena Pueyo each put up eight to propel Arizona to one of its biggest wins of the season.

Of course, those games were not played until January last year. This season, each team has had only one non-conference game to prepare. Close doesn’t want her players to view that as a problem.

“If it was a normal scheduling year, I would still want to have a top-10 team on our schedule within the first three games to give yourself a barometer of where you are,” Close said. “And so I really challenged them to look at it just that way.”

That’s not to say that the lack of November games isn’t an issue for the teams. Arizona is trying to work in some new faces in a shortened off-season that was marred by several quarantines. Junior guard Bendu Yeaney, who is in her first year with the Wildcats after transferring from Indiana, has been held out of practice multiple times due to contact tracing.

“Poor Bendu,” Barnes said. “She’s been contact traced and held out probably four times and it’s never been her fault. It’s like she gave someone a ride home and they got caught. There was a false (positive). We’ve had a lot of false positives.”

Just the weekend before the season started, the Wildcats had eight players out for three days after one of those false positives. That disruption has kept them from integrating two new starters and key reserves the way Barnes would have liked. That’s put them well behind where they were when the teams last met in January.

“We’re not playing at that level right now and I don’t think UCLA is either,” Barnes said. “I think we’re both trying to figure things out. You know, you’re working with different people. They have more starters returning, so I think they have a little bit more of advantage or a little bit more cohesiveness. We have two new starters in the lineup, but I think it’s gonna be a great game.”

That’s not to say that the Bruins don’t have their own issues in this season upended by the pandemic. Close wishes she was integrating more new faces as her two Australian freshmen, Izzy Anstey and Gemma Potter, are still barred from entering the country because UCLA doesn’t offer any in-person courses.

“It’s hard,” Close said. “But you know what? My big thing to preach to myself is that I can’t give my energy away to things that I can’t control. And the reality is, this is what we got right now. And I hope at some point, we’re going to be able to get our Aussies here, but the reality is, this is what we have. So I don’t want to give my energy or focus. Coach Wooden had a quote that he used to say all the time that if you focus on things out of your control, it will adversely affect the things under your control.”

While Close said she thought Arizona might take advantage of their superior depth by playing “almost hockey” and substituting liberally, Barnes seemed unlikely to employ that tactic. It would be a change for her to do so.

From Barnes’ perspective, the lack of depth shouldn’t be a huge disadvantage for UCLA barring unexpected circumstances. However, she does expect the Bruins to make adjustments to try to avoid those difficult circumstances.

“The eight players, we all only play seven players in conference,” Barnes said. “So I don’t think that that’s a huge factor. I mean, you’ll see even us with a longer bench, we’re going to probably play eight people. So I think that’s pretty similar. I think that the thing that can be a challenge for them with eight players is their style of defense. So they’re aggressive, and they get up in the passing lanes and stuff. So that’s probably hard to sustain with the small (roster) or if someone gets in foul trouble. I think that’s a big disadvantage for them, and I think that’s why you’ll see them play more zone. I’m anticipating probably at least 40 percent zone, and if they’re in foul trouble more.”

Facing zone defense would be nothing new for the Wildcats. Many teams have used the zone to try to thwart McDonald’s ability to drive to the basket. Arizona hasn’t been able to shoot well enough or find the gaps to force teams to stop employing that tactic.

The Wildcats’ game against Northern Arizona wouldn’t have given the Bruins any reason to think things have changed on that front. Arizona went 3-13 from distance with all three makes coming from McDonald in the second half. That may give UCLA comfort knowing that they can afford to protect players by using the zone.

Whatever the circumstances, excitement and gratitude for the approaching contest is the common theme for both coaches and players. Getting the chance to play in a top-10 match-up is what Pac-12 women’s basketball has come to mean to them.

“This is what they came to do is to play in the best conference in the country against the best to measure their progress against the best,” Close said. “And so we’re getting the chance right off the bat, and we’re going to be able to do that the rest of the way.”

Written by Kim Doss

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