A strong showing defensively in the second half and a big game from sophomore JaLea Bennett propelled the Arizona Wildcats to a 51-44 win at North Texas on Friday afternoon.
The Wildcats (4-1) allowed just four points in the third quarter and held the Mean Green without any points for more than five minutes in the second half. Thanks to the strong defense and some halftime adjustments, the Cats were able to turn a four-point halftime deficit into a seven-point victory.
“We made some adjustments on their ball screens where they were attacking us a lot in the first half and we were helping too much,” Coach Niya Butts said. “And we just locked in from there. We got aggressive on the offensive end and just started to make some plays.”
Trailing by four at half, Bennett and Taryn Griffey hit back-to-back buckets early in the third to tie the game at 28 with 6:55 to play in the third. North Texas scored the next four in a low-scoring quarter to take a 32-28 lead with 4:48 left in the quarter. The Wildcats didn’t allow the Mean Green to score the rest of the quarter and got a jumper from Malena Washington and two free throws from Bennett to tie the game at 32 at the end of the quarter.
The strong defensive play and fluid offense carried over to the fourth quarter. Breanna Workman connected on a layup 26 seconds into the quarter to give Arizona its first lead of the game at 34-32. The Cats never gave the lead back from there.
A little more than two minutes later, Bennett hit a jumper and then Workman followed with another basket with 6:39 left to give the Cats a six-point lead.
The Mean Green cut it to three, but Workman hit another layup in the paint to give the Cats a 40-35 lead at the final media timeout with 4:27 to play. The Wildcats stretched their lead to eight on three more free throws from Workman. A Candice Adams 3-pointer cut the lead to five with 3:07 to play, but the Wildcats never allowed the Mean Green to get any closer the rest of the game. Workman hit two more free throws and Washington and Lauren Evans each hit jumpers to help close out the game.
The win gave the Cats two early road victories this season with the other coming earlier this month at Toledo in the season opener. In the second half, North Texas shot just five of 20 from the floor and had 17 turnovers to three assists.
“It was ugly; there’s no other way to say it, it was an ugly win,” Butts said. “But we’ll take an ugly win over a pretty loss any day. We’re going to take this one and get out of here and prepare for the next three at home.”
Bennett, from nearby Grand Prairie, Texas, led the Wildcats with 18 points on six of nine shooting. She was a perfect three of three from 3-point distance and played 28 minutes, adding two steals and two rebounds.
“I was just so excited to get home,” Bennett said after the win. “I’m just happy that we won and that I was able to play well in front of my family because they don’t get to see me play too often.”
Workman finished seven of 10 from the free throw line and added four rebounds to go with 15 points. She led the Wildcats with 35 minutes. Malena Washington added nine points in 19 minutes and Lauren Evans gave a solid contribution with five points, six rebounds and four steals in 20 minutes.
But Bennett led the way in both halves.
She paced the Wildcats in the opening half, hitting four of eight shots in the first, including all three of her 3-pointers. Bennett is six of eight from 3-point range so far this season after going two of 15 from deep last season as a freshman.
“She stepped up big time,” Butts said of Bennett’s play “She really made some tough baskets today. She finished from the three-point line and she showed up when some of our other scorers didn’t do much.”
The Cats will return to action Wednesday, Dec. 2 at home against New Mexico State and look to win their third straight. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., at McKale Center.
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