Michelle Smith Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament Semifinal Recap - Bruins outlast Wildcats
LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The things we knew about this game before tip-off were the things that decided it up until the final moments.
Toughness and physicality were the calling cards for both UCLA and Arizona coming into this Pac-12 semifinal and these two talented, battle-tested teams showed it all for 40 rough-and-tumble minutes Friday night at the Michelob Ultra Arena, with the Bruins holding off a late Wildcats charge, led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald to nail down a 58-49 win and advance to the Pac-12 title game against top-seeded Stanford. UCLA (16-4) will play in the title game for the first time since 2016.
“Both teams were physical, aggressive and relentless and we knew it was going to be that way,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, who will take her Bruins to the title game for the third time in her tenure. “We didn’t let it get to us.”
UCLA senior forward Michaela Onyenwere finished with 24 points, four rebounds and 3 steals, no basket bigger than her coast-to-coast driving layup with 1:04 to go in the game after Shaina Pellington had scored at the other end to cut UCLA’s lead to 49-47. The Bruins outscored Arizona (16-5) 9-2 the rest of the way to punch their title game ticket.
McDonald, the Pac-12 Player of the Year playing in her final conference game, also finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and four steals.
“It was a battle,” said Onyenwere, who will be playing in her first conference tournament title game. “We know Arizona is a tough, tough team and every time we go up against them it’s gonna be a war. But we had a mindset and a mentality that we were going to come out here and win this game.
“We talk about being the tougher, more together team and the deeper you go into the season, it’s not about execution and plays, it’s about what players are going to be tough. At the end of the day we were the tougher team and I’m so proud of my team for sticking it out.”
This was not a game of offensive flow, but a defensive battle at every turn. As Arizona shot 31.7 percent from the floor for the game and went through a pair of significant scoring droughts (including an 0-for-10 drought spanning more than nine minutes in the first half), UCLA was able to cobble together a 10-point lead despite its own offensive struggles and a difficult scoring night for point guard Charisma Osborne (1-of-12 from the floor), who finished with seven points and seven rebounds in 35 minutes.
The Bruins boosted their offense in the second half and finished 19 of 23 from the free-throw line, including a 10-for-10 effort down the stretch to help seal the win.
Outside of McDonald, Arizona struggled to find another scoring source. The rest of the lineup made a total of 10 field-goals for the game. Cate Reese scored eight points.
McDonald said was disappointed in the team’s lack of focus in the game and that the Wildcats need to use the next three weeks to get better before the NCAA Tournament begins.
“We have to go back to the drawing board,” McDonald said. “We’ve got to stay focused and locked in for 40 minutes. It sucks (to lose), especially since it’s my last go-around, but I’m proud of our team for fighting the whole way.”
It was the second straight night that the Bruins held a team to a season-low scoring total following up on Thursday’s quarterfinal win against Washington.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes said she saw a game of two strong, defensive teams struggling to score consistently. But her team struggled to keep UCLA off the boards at critical moments and scoring droughts made the job tougher.
“We got only four assists on 18 field-goals and you aren’t going to win a lot of games like that,” said Barnes. “UCLA played better than we did today. They are a good team. We had to get some stops and scores. We talk about the game in five minute blocks and we call them wars. The only war we won was the last one.”