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The Daily Wildcat

 

No. 11 Arizona WBB secures First Four spot, set to face No 11 Auburn in NCAA Tournament opener

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Noor Haghighi
Women’s basketball assistant coach Salvo Coppa gives directions to Skylar Jones (left), Esmery Martinez and Breya Cunningham in McKale Center on Jan. 26 against Cal. Jones scored 6 points in the third quarter in her first career start in the matchup.

The No. 11 seed Arizona women’s basketball team is set to face No. 11 seed Auburn University in a First Four play-in game of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 21, at 4 p.m. at Storrs, Connecticut, in Gampel Pavilion. Arizona (17-15, 8-10 in Pac-12) enters its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament and 11th in the women’s program history. The winner of this matchup will move on to the Round of 64 in the tournament and face No. 6 seed Syracuse University on Saturday, March 23 at 12:30 p.m. 

The Wildcats prepare to face Auburn (20-11, 8-8 in SEC) which is in a very similar situation as Arizona, as both teams have not played a game in two weeks and its last time on the court was in a losing effort in its respective conference quarterfinal games. In Arizona’s case, it was USC who became the No. 1 seed in Region three and for Auburn, it was Louisiana State University who became the No. 3 seed in Region two. Although, unlike Arizona, prior to this loss, Auburn had won its last four games, while Arizona was 2-2 in its last four. However, the level of competition the Wildcats had to face was on another level. 

This season, the Wildcats have had to play in arguably the toughest conference in women’s college basketball and due to that fact, they have faced the most ranked opponents in program history. The Wildcats went 2-9 against ranked opponents this season; however, they were 15-6 against all other teams. While Auburn this season had played only four ranked opponents and went 1-3 against them, but was 19-8 against everyone else. It goes to show the road Arizona had to take to reach this point compared to the road Auburn took. This reality played a major part in the committee’s decision in adding Arizona into the tournament, since it was one of the bubble teams, but it was able to make it in given the Wildcats’ performances against the level of competition they played. Arguably, their best win of the season came against No. 3 Stanford University on Friday, Feb. 23, when the Wildcats defeated the Cardinal 68-61. Then in the Pac-12 Tournament, although they fell short, they gave USC all they could take in the quarterfinals, losing 65-62. Their road to this matchup should pay dividends, as they will be going up against an Auburn team that is no slouch either even if its road has not been as difficult. To make it to this point, the Tigers remain an impressive team from top to bottom.

Auburn’s tournament history  

Auburn’s women’s basketball team has a rich history in the NCAA Tournament, dating back to its first appearance in 1982. Over the decades, the Tigers have consistently showcased their competitive dominance, making deep runs and leaving their mark on the tournament.

In the early 1980s, Auburn quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with, making multiple Sweet 16 appearances and even reaching the Elite Eight in 1987 and 1988. The pinnacle of its success during this era came in 1988 when they advanced to the Title Game, ultimately falling short against Stanford. Throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Auburn continued to be a dominant force, consistently earning high seeds and making deep tournament runs, including another Final Four appearance in 1990.

Despite facing ups and downs in the following years, including a brief hiatus from tournament success in the early 2000s, Auburn remained a formidable contender. In recent years, they’ve continued to compete at a high level, earning tournament bids and demonstrating its resilience on the national stage. With this tournament’s appearance, the Tigers make their return after not making a bid in four years to face the Wildcats and look to rekindle some of their old glory. Auburn will attempt to continue solidifying their legacy as one of the sport’s perennial powerhouses.

Auburn’s season

Head coach Johnnie Harris, currently in her third year at the helm, has played a pivotal role in the Auburn women’s basketball’s transformation. In her first season, Harris doubled the team’s win total from the previous year and secured victories over three nationally ranked opponents. In her second year, she led the Tigers to their first winning record and postseason appearance in four years, finishing with a 16-15 overall record and five SEC wins. Auburn’s postseason victory against Tulane University in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament marked a significant milestone, signaling their resurgence under Harris’s leadership. With a current record of 46-44 at Auburn, Harris has instilled a winning culture within the program, guiding the team to newfound success on the national stage.

Auburn’s journey back to the NCAA Tournament has been marked by gritty performances paired with significant achievements on the court. The Tigers showcased their potential this season with a victory against the reigning defending women’s basketball champions LSU, earlier in the season demonstrating their ability to compete with the highest level of competition. Under Harris’s guidance, Auburn has shown marked improvement and progress each season. The team’s collective effort and unwavering resolve have been instrumental in its success, culminating in an NCAA Tournament bid and a chance to add to its history in March Madness.

Leading the charge for Auburn are graduate student guards Honesty Scott-Grayson and JaMya Mingo-Young, whose experience and skills on the court have been crucial to the Tigers’ current success. Scott-Grayson, averaging a team-high 17.4 points per game at 41.4% shooting from the field, provides the offensive firepower, while Mingo-Young, who is the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 8.9 points per game on 37.4% shooting from the field, is more known on the team for her facilitating as she leads the team with her four assists per game. Together, this dynamic guard duo spearheads the Tigers’ efforts as they aim to make a statement in the NCAA Tournament.

Wildcats to watch 

Heading into a one-and-done contest, the Wildcats will have to lean on their two most veteran players who have helped them reach this point to continue leading them as they prepare for the upcoming tournament game. The first player is fifth-year forward Esmery Martinez, who may be playing in her final game this Thursday. Martinez has averaged 11.1 points per game this season, shooting 42.2% from the field and averaging 6.3 rebounds per game, leading the Wildcats in both categories. Despite Martinez’s stats not jumping off the page, her impact on the court goes beyond mere statistics. Even with a limited roster, Martinez has led this team up to this point after navigating through a gauntlet of a schedule. On their journey here, she became the first Arizona women’s basketball player to be named the Associated Press Player of the Week, an award introduced this season after the Wildcats swept both Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley earlier in the season. Achievements like these are important for any player, but leading her team to these two wins, something that hadn’t been achieved in 23 years, was even more special. Martinez will once again need to lead the way as the Wildcats look to handle business this week and then officially enter the tournament, aiming to make an even deeper run than last year’s team.

The second player at the forefront of the Wildcats’ efforts is fifth-year guard Helena Pueyo. This season, she is averaging 9.4 points per game on 46.9% shooting from the field while also averaging 3.7 assists and 3.2 steals per game, leading the team in both categories. Similar to Martinez, Pueyo’s statistics may not be eye-popping, but her impact on the game transcends the final box score. Pueyo has undoubtedly been this team’s workhorse this season, capable of adapting to any setting against any opponent and doing whatever the team needs to give the Wildcats their best chance of winning. This unique play style will be called upon once again as they prepare to face Auburn for the right to enter the Round of 64 and continue dancing.


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