ST. THOMAS — Arizona head coach Adia Barnes figured her ninth-ranked Wildcats would be challenged sometime this season.

She just didn’t expect that challenge to come from rebuilding Vanderbilt, which only played eight games last season before COVID-related issued forced the team to call off its season.

Yet that’s what happened Thursday at the Paradise Jam tournament, with Shaina Pellington hitting an off-balance layup at the buzzer to lift the Wildcats past pesky Vanderbilt 48-46 at the UVI Sports and Fitness Center.

With the game tied at 46, Pellington — a 5-foot-8 senior — drove from the left wing, with her off-balance scoop layup dropping in just before the horn sounded.

“We were running a different action, but then she saw an open lane because the pass wasn’t open,” Barnes said. “She hesitated for a bit, but I thought she was just going to go. She made a great play. “We got lucky, because they should’ve won the game the way they played. We got lucky. We should all run out of here and wipe our foreheads because we didn’t deserve to win that game.”

Sam Thomas had 13 points and Ariyah Copeland 11 points for the Wildcats (5-0). Pellington finished with five points.

Demi Washington and Iyana Moore had 10 points each for Vanderbilt (3-3), which rallied from going down by as many as 15 points in the second quarter to come a possession away from forcing a Top 10 team into overtime.

“Obviously, when you lose a game like that you’re disappointed,” said first-year Vanderbilt coach Shea Ralph, a former assistant at UConn.

“I felt we could’ve won it. Our defense was so good all game. We just needed one stop at the end, and we couldn’t get it.

“There’s opportunities for us to learn from this. On the flip side, our team has grown so much over the last couple of weeks.

“There are no moral victories, but I’m happy to see how we’re coming together and maturing.”

Turning point

Arizona led 22-7 with 6 minutes, 30 seconds left in the second quarter on Lauren Ware’s layup, but the Commodores fought back to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 24-16 at the half.

After keeping things close in the third quarter, Vanderbilt mounted a rally in the fourth quarter, eventually tying the game at 46-all on Brinae Alexander’s layup with 7.6 seconds remaining.

After a timeout, Barnes put the ball into Pellington’s hands. As her layup rolled into the basket just before the buzzer sounded, it set off a celebration under the Wildcats’ basket.

Key players

Shaina Pellington, Arizona: She didn’t have that great a shooting game — 4 for 9 from the field, 1 for 2 on 3-pointers — but her final basket was the biggest of the game for the still-undefeated Wildcats.

Demi Washington, Vanderbilt: The 5-10 junior — one of the Commodores’ returnees from the ill-fated season — made 5 of 6 from the field. She also had two of the team’s 12 steals.

Observations

• Not an impressive game for Arizona, which was averaging nearly 80 points per game (79.8) entering Thursday’s game. However, Vanderbilt held the Wildcats to 31 points below that average.

• One reason for that was the Commodores’ defense, who forced Arizona into a season high 25 turnovers (nearly a dozen more than its season average), leading to 28 points. Vandy itself made 26 turnovers.

• Vanderbilt’s work on the boards also played a factor. The Commodores held Arizona to a season-low 22 rebounds — 24 below its season average — while coming down with 33 rebounds (less than five below its average).

Up next

Arizona faces DePaul at 4:15 p.m. today in its second of three games at Paradise Jam, while Vanderbilt plays three-time Paradise Jam champion Rutgers at 2 p.m. today.