With star transfer leading way, Arizona jumps into position to reach NCAA match play

Beth Ann Nichols/Golfweek

With star transfer leading way, Arizona jumps into position to reach NCAA match play

College

With star transfer leading way, Arizona jumps into position to reach NCAA match play

STILLWATER, Okla. – Laura Ianello was tearing up as she talked to her team after Thursday’s practice round at the NCAA Championship.

Arizona’s eighth-year head coach was expressing her pride in this group and how they’ve worked hard and stepped up in a 2017-18 campaign that has brought in some changes.

“We were holding it together, but some of us were like, ‘Coach, stop! You’re going to make me cry!’ ” junior Haley Moore said, laughing.

Ianello’s words have been put into action so far at Karsten Creek Golf Club.

The Wildcats went out in the morning in Sunday’s third round and fired an Even-par 288, jumping up a spot to third at 16 over and solidifying them in perfect position after 54 holes to advance to match play. (The top eight teams after 72 holes reach the match-play portion.)

Ianello iterated that if you gave her that round this morning, she would’ve taken it immediately. Heck, Arizona shot the impressive score despite some serious late stumbles.

Moore, who began her third round at No. 10, got out hot on Sunday. A lasered 6-iron from 180 yards to 6 feet for an eagle at the par-5 18th allowed her to go out in 3-under 33, and a birdie at the next put her 4 under for the day.

She was still 3 under for the round until she came to the par-4 eighth. Moore proceeded to hook her drive and, unsure if she could find it, played a provisional. Another hook forced another provisional.

Assistant Coach Derek Radley, walking with the junior, texted Ianello that Moore was in trouble. The head coach sprinted back from the eighth green and ended up finding a ball in a bush. Moore soon confirmed it was from her opening drive.

“Thank God we found the first one, or she would’ve taken like a 12,” Ianello said.

Moore did have to take a penalty drop for an unplayable lie, though, pitched out, hit onto the green from there and three-putted for a triple bogey 7. The late slide meant an Even-par 72 (and a tie for 59th at 10 over).

Bianca Pagdanganan put up her own late seven. The junior had been hitting 3-wood off the par-5 ninth during the week. But with a hurting wind Sunday and desiring to get her drive in the same flat spot of the fairway she had found the previous day, Pagdanganan decided to get aggressive by going driver.

That’s a mistake at a penal Karsten Creek. Pagdanganan hit a lost ball left, leading to a closing double bogey.

“I was with Coach (Derek) on the tee box and he told me he should’ve pulled that club out of my hand,” Pagdanganan said. “But I should’ve thought about it too.”

Otherwise, though, Pagdanganan was stellar on Sunday. Five birdies in her first 13 holes pushed her out to the individual lead, and even a bogey-double finish left her with a 71 and in solo third at 6 under. And her accountability is a stark contrast from what Ianello saw in the program a year ago.

Arizona’s Bianca Pagdanganan putts during the 2018 NCAA Women’s Championship. (Taylor Britton/ANNIKA Foundation)

The Wildcats managed to wrangle a No. 4 seed at last year’s NCAA regionals but proceeded to finish a distant 10th to come nowhere close to advancing to nationals.

Ianello knew something needed to change.

“Last year, we had a couple of players who weren’t invested, they didn’t care. Last year the girls missed nationals and they didn’t really care,” she said. “This year, they’re invested. They want to be here, they want to play well, they want to win, where last year my team did not care. They didn’t have the want. That’s the difference.”

They’ve done it with some changing faces. Pagdanganan entered the team this season as a transfer from Gonzaga. Then mid-season, senior Krystal Quihuis turned pro. Freshman Yu-Sang Hou (T-25, 4 over at the NCAA Championship) joined the team in the spring.

It was a series of transitions that took time, but the team has gelled chemistry-wise significantly better in 2017-18.

Pagdanganan has been a big force in that regard. Despite this being the junior’s first year on the team, Ianello feels Pagdanganan is the group’s leader.

While investment has gone up, that goes hand in hand with chemistry and goofy times. Pagdanganan has been the master of that, cracking up her teammates all season with her random fits of laughter.

Pagdanganan describes herself as a happy person who doesn’t like to see others down. So she’ll laugh whenever she likes.

“I laugh at my own jokes and I guess that’s what makes my team laugh,” Pagdanganan said, with a smile. “They’re just like, ‘B, you crack yourself up.’ And I tell them, ‘If nobody has my back, then someone has to.’ ”

She’s chuckled her way to six top-16 finishes this season, and an NCAA individual title is definitely within reach with a day to go in stroke play. But the Wildcats’ first order of business is reaching match play.

It was a goal for Arizona simply to make the NCAA Championship after last year’s regionals exit. The team has done that and more so far.

But plenty of work still awaits. The Wildcats are in good position to advance and can feel good knowing that even Sunday’s great round wasn’t nearly their best.

“Today we did not minimize mistakes,” Ianello said. “That’s where tomorrow we need to make sure we do not do that because that’s what can really kill your chances.”

Even with that ahead though, Ianello can’t help but go back to the message of her Thursday speech.

“They’ve worked really, really hard this year,” Ianello said. “It makes me so proud that these girls have stepped up.”

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