In front of biggest crowd of season, women's basketball advances to WNIT Elite Eight
6,307 strong at McKale
Sam Thomas celebrates with a fan after the Wildcats beat Idaho at McKale Center 68-60 to advance to the Elite Eight for the Women's NIT Tournament. [Beau Leone/The Daily Wildcat]
Before the matchup against the University of Idaho in the Sweet 16 of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, Arizona women’s basketball head coach Adia Barnes said she was hoping for 5,000 fans in McKale Center.
On Thursday night, she got that and then some.
Playing in front of a crowd of 6,307, the Wildcats defeated Idaho 68-60 to move on to the Elite Eight of the WNIT.
“I love Tucson. I love the fans here,” Barnes said. “The crowd, it ignited us. When we were flat, and the basketball was getting a little bit ugly, and we were letting them hit shots in the third quarter, the crowd got crazy, started chanting 'Arizona', and it makes us make plays. You feed off of it as a player.”
Redshirt sophomore Aari McDonald finished with a double-double on 18 points and 11 assists. Sophomore Sam Thomas finished with 13 points, five rebounds, three assists, six steals and one of the best defensive highlights of the night: a thunderous block that almost sent the ball three rows deep.
“She did so many valuable things,” Barnes said of Thomas. “She locked who she was guarding on defense, she had some great steals, some incredible blocks and took really good shots and made some big shots.”
One of the wildest plays of the night came as the buzzer expired in the third quarter, when Thomas got a steal with a few seconds left, turned around and threw the ball towards the hoop, where McDonald was able to score the tip-in.
“I think there was three seconds left, but I thought I tipped the ball and the time was running out,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I never would have shot that if I knew I had three seconds.”
In the first quarter, it seemed like the large crowd was making a difference on both sides, but not necessarily positively for the ‘Cats, who at one point were shooting 33 percent from the field. Once they got the jitters out, the Wildcats seemed to settle in and ended the quarter shooting 50 percent, holding a 19-16 lead.
In the second frame, the Wildcats put their feet on the gas with some swarming defense and good offensive possessions. Going into the locker room, the ‘Cats led by 10, 36-26.
The first half of the game could have been named “The Cate Reese Show.” The freshman showed glimpses of the dominant post player, finishing with 12 points on 5-6 shooting and Barnes noting postgame that her skills will continue to develop.
Things got interesting in the third quarter, as the Wildcats saw their 10-point lead diminish to a two-point lead, during a stretch in which they were held without a basket for over six minutes. Over the final 2:47 of the quarter, Arizona flipped the script and held Idaho scoreless, heading into the final frame with a 48-39 lead.
In the fourth, the Wildcats put the game to bed with a strong finish, and although they were outscored 21-20, they were able to hold on to the ball at the end and hit their free throws, winning the game 68-60.
With the win, the Wildcats now move on to the Elite Eight of WNIT, where Barnes is challenging Wildcat supporters to hit 7,000 fans. Arizona will host Wyoming on Sunday, March 31, at 2 p.m.
Follow Noah Auclair on Twitter