TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A long layoff caused a bit of rust. There was a slow start, breakdowns at both ends of the floor, an early deficit before a late rally.
Arizona knows it needs to be better to survive another round in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina is thinking the same thing.
The Wildcats and Tar Heels meet in the second round of the Greensboro Region on Monday night, both hoping to erase some of the mistakes that left them vulnerable to upsets by higher-seeded opponents in their openers.
“Us and North Carolina kind of got our jitters out the first game, so I think we will bring it to the next level tomorrow, knowing that they are probably going to play ten times better, ten times harder,” Arizona senior guard Sam Thomas said. “Sweet 16 on the line, the season on the line, you want to go to the next region. Everybody is going to bring their A-game tomorrow.”
No. 4 seed Arizona (21-7) earned a chance to host NCAA Tournament games for the first time since 1998 and the McKale Center was electric during Saturday's first-round game against UNLV.
Instead of riding the red-and-blue wave, last year's national runner-up stumbled through an ugly first quarter, plagued by jitters and rust from a 15-day layoff.
Arizona had a hard time shaking the Lady Rebels even after playing better, entering the fourth quarter trailing by five. The Wildcats finally found their groove and pulled away for a 72-57 win behind Shaina Pellington and Cate Reese, who scored 22 of their 24 points in the quarter.
“I think of a couple of keys in this game, the first one is transition defense, second is boxing out. Those are things that we have to do,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes, the leading scorer on the 1998 team. “They’re tough, they’re physical and we are going to have to do that in order to win the game. If we don’t, we won’t win the game..”
The fifth-seeded Tar Heels (24-6) have a few corrections of their own to make.
North Carolina took a similar path as Arizona in its opener against Stephen F. Austin, struggling early after a two-week break, bouncing back, then pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 79-66 win.
The Tar Heels struggled with turnovers and defensive rebounding early against the Ladyjacks before Deja Kelly (28 points) carried them to their first NCAA Tournament win since 2015.
North Carolina has a short turnaround against another pressing team in what will be a tough road environment.
“There are some games and sometimes throughout the game where coaches have to play chess a little bit. This is not one of those games,” North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said. "This is one of those games where you’re late in March, you’re late in your run and there just comes a time where you just got to play basketball, right?”
The key on Monday between these two similarly built teams could come down to the head-to-head matchup between Pellington and Kelly.
Arizona doesn't have a true go-to player like it did in All-American Aari McDonald last season, but Pellington may be the closest thing. When playing aggressively on offense, the 5-foot-9 senior guard can score in bunches. She did just that against UNLV, carrying the Wildcats out of the early funk and making big shots down the stretch. She shot 10 of 19, had four assists and four steals.
“With a player like that, it is not always on one person,” North Carolina junior guard Eva Hodgson said. “It’s on the whole team. And so understanding that she just had 30 and likely still pretty hot off of that, we can kind of be in our gaps better and just talk more and be more prepared for that.”
Arizona faces a similar challenge in Kelly.
The 5-8 sophomore guard was North Carolina's leading scorer during the regular season with 16.3 points per game and carried the Tar Heels during their early funk against SFA. She made some big shots down the stretch as well, finishing 8 of 15, including 4 of 7 from 3, with five rebounds and four assists.
“She’s a scorer,” Barnes said. “I think what’s really stepped out about her game is she is an incredible mid-range jumper, but now has been consistent from the 3 and she’s been really hot as of late.”
One of those two gets hot again, they could carry their team right into the Sweet 16.
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