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Four takeaways from Arizona’s Sweet 16 WNIT win over Idaho

Beau Leone | The Daily Wildcat

Arizona Wildcat players Cate Reese (25) and Bryce Nixon (24) cheer their teammates on after a made basket on Thursday, March 28th at McKale Center in Tucson, Arizona. 

Arizona women's basketball continued their championship quest in the Women's National Invitational Tournament with a 68-60 win over Idaho Thursday night. If you missed the action, here's how Arizona advanced to the Elite Eight.

Thomas and McDonald lights out 

The duo of Aari McDonald and Sam Thomas were the parts that made Arizona's engine run. McDonald scored or assisted 19 of Arizona’s 26 baskets, proving her ability to take control of games. McDonald also recorded a career high in assists with 11, and poured in a team-high 18 points. The redshirt sophomore, who already holds the Arizona record for the most single-season points, continued her record year well into the month of March, showing no signs of slowing down.

Thomas was on fire for the Wildcats as well, putting up 13 points of her own in 34 minutes on the court. Arguably her biggest impact on the court was her defense: she tallied an impressive six steals and turned the ball over zero times. To add to that, Thomas also had two blocks, including one that sent a deep 3 back into the stands.

“I was tired, I’ll tell you that,” Thomas said. "I was just trying to do what I needed to do for my team. I knew they were three-point shooters, so I was just trying to be everywhere."

Arizona head coach Adia Barnes had some high praise for Thomas' effort after the game.

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]

“She wasn’t getting beat. She contested every shot," Barnes said. "Thirty-three [Idaho] had hit a really hard shot over her, but I mean, she made some big plays … I think she played a phenomenal game. Without her playing like that, we don’t win this game." 

          RELATED: Recap of Arizona's win over Idaho

Four players in double figures

To say the Wildcats shared the ball on Thursday night would be an understatement, as four Wildcat players scored in double digits. As a team, UA racked up 21 total assists and grabbed 33 rebounds, shooting 43 percent from the field. Here’s a look at stats from the four Cats who had double figures:

McDonald – 18 points, 11 assists 

Thomas – 13 points, 5 rebounds 

Cate Reese – 14 points 

Tee Tee Starks – 11 points, 6 rebounds 

Stomp the bleachers

McKale Center was the center of Tucson Thursday night as a season-high 6,307 fans were in attendance. Arizona well exceeded its goal of 5,000 fans, which was set by Barnes. The boost from the crowd turned the arena into a tough place to play for Idaho. The Wildcats could feel the energy on the court too.

“The crowd – it ignited us,” Barnes said. “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 … I think the crowd made a difference and helped us win this game.”

With the help of the athletic director Dave Heeke, UA head football coach Kevin Sumlin and President Dr. Robert Robbins, free tickets were provided to students, and the house was packed to the brim. Men's basketball coach Sean Miller was in attendance along with members of the UA men’s basketball team. Barnes and company aren’t settling for 6,000; Barnes said after the game they are shooting for 7,000 this Sunday to keep the momentum going.  

Physical play 

As the game continued, Idaho began to increase its physical play. In one instance, McDonald rushed back on defense in transition and an Idaho player stepped in her way to create a screen, but the lightning-quick UA point guard couldn’t slow down, ending in a head-on collision near the sideline at half court. McDonald, who stayed down for a moment, brushed off her shoulders and rejoined her team on the court. After the game, she talked about recovering from that collision, which coach Barnes said left her teeth covered in blood.

Aari McDonald (2) grimaces on the bench after she takes a hard screen to the body in the second half of play vs Idaho on Thursday, March 28th. [Beau Leone/The Daily Wildcat]

“It’s bigger than me, honestly. It’s about my teammates, and obviously winning, so I just had to suck it up and go back in,” McDonald said. “It hurt a lot, honestly. I thought she knocked my teeth out." 

But McDonald still had a full set of teeth, as she grinned ear-to-ear after the win.

Up next

At 2 p.m. on Sunday, the Wildcats will host Wyoming, who beat Pepperdine 61-60 in the Sweet 16.

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