SALT LAKE CITY: The great players appear in the great moments.
For BYU women’s basketball, Paisley Johnson Harding was an important player in the Cougars’ first-round loss to Rutgers in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Arizona’s Aari McDonald was the big player in Round 2.
McDonald had 17 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and four steals to help the third-seeded Wildcats contain the Cougars 52-46 Wednesday night at the UTSA Convocation Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Cate Reese scored 12 points and five rebounds for Arizona (18-5), which shot just 34% from the field but forced 15 turnovers, including 11 steals, in its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1998.
The Wildcats held BYU to one field goal in the final 5:11.
No team led by more than 5 in a game marked by defense, including two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year McDonald, a finalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
BYU held the Wildcats to just 3 points in a 10:33 span, joining the third and fourth quarters, taking a 43-39 lead with 5:03 remaining in the game.
But McDonald doubled Arizona’s touchdown production in that stretch with a triple, and Sam Thomas drained another 3 with 3:43 to go, giving the Wildcats the lead.
BYU’s Tegan Graham cut the deficit to 1 with his third triple, but the Cougars never led again.
Shaylee Gonzales had 16 points and nine rebounds to lead BYU, which had 13 points, five rebounds and three assists from Graham. Lauren Gustin added 8 points and 11 rebounds for the Cougars (19-6).
“Our team did very well at the beginning,” Gonzales said. “Our defense was offensive, our offense was good. But then we changed our defense a bit, we went from man to box and one, and we broke the press well. Then we let them get back into the game, and they hit a lot of 3s. I feel like the last quarter happened like this; it got out of hand. “
The Cougars proved they could be with one of the best defensive teams in the country, keeping the Wildcats down during long scoring droughts and holding up to a 4-point lead with five minutes to go.
But Arizona is one of the best defensive teams in the country, the best, if you ask BYU coach Jeff Judkins, and he showed it in the final moments.
Perhaps, then, it was appropriate when McDonald took a pass and ran into a transition bucket with three seconds left as the Cougars looked for an open 3 in the final minutes, 4 down.
“I totally believed in my team,” Gonzales said of the Cougars’ lead midway through the fourth quarter. “It’s very unfortunate; it’s very frustrating to have that advantage and lose it. But I’m very proud of my team for how we play today.
Of BYU’s 15 turnovers, Arizona forced 11 of them. On the other hand, the Cougars forced only three of the Wildcats’ nine turnovers.
“I think we need to be a little more aggressive defensively,” Judkins said. “We played more as a staff and tried to play team defense.
“I think next year, we can do better by pushing on them. I have some players who can do that. But of all the teams I’ve had at BYU, this is probably the most complete. Good defensive team and very good offensive team.
Two days after going 28 points in a surprise 69-66 win over Rutgers, Harding was limited to just 2 points and four rebounds. The oldest fell out of hand in the first half and finished shooting just 1 of 9 in 22 minutes.
Such is the downside of facing two of the best defensive guards in the country in McDonald and Shaina Pellington.
“I think Arizona did a good job with her,” Judkins said. “Her hand is a little sore after she fell on it, and she can’t do as many things as she wanted to. But I think she showed a lot of heart. That’s what team basketball is all about. That’s what she is: she’s a special, special player. I’m very lucky to have someone like that. “
Arizona advanced to face No. 2 Texas A&M, who held off 84-82 in overtime. Tipoff in the Sweet 16 is scheduled for Saturday at 6 p.m. MDT.