Arizona’s women’s basketball team tips off the Pac-12 season Sunday at McKale Center against No. 17 Arizona State.
The Wildcats are 10-1 and riding a nine-game winning streak. The last time they won nine straight was the 2003-04 season on a team featuring Shawntinice Polk and Dee Dee Wheeler, among others. That team finished 24-9 overall and 14-4 in Pac-12.
While it’s still way too early to know how this team will finish the season, it is safe to say that in the third year of coach Adia Barnes’ rebuild, things are headed in the right direction. UA has already surpassed last season’s win total (six).
This year’s team features one of the leading scorers in the nation in Aari McDonald (24.2 points per game), and one of the top freshmen in the nation in Cate Reese (14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game). Sam Thomas is the only player in the Pac-12 to rank in the top five in both steals (2.3) and blocks (1.5).
The Wildcats are holding their opponents to 50.1 points per game, the fourth-lowest total in the nation and tops in the Pac-12. Arizona’s opponents are shooting 33.5 percent — the second-lowest percentage in the Pac-12 and 15th-lowest in the nation.
Arizona’s average margin of victory is 26.5 points, which is second in the Pac-12.
What have we learned about UA in the first 11 games of the season? Here are a few things:
It starts with defense. Barnes changed Arizona’s defense to suit McDonald’s quickness. If an offensive player takes her eyes off McDonald, the Washington transfer is apt to steal the ball and score.
McDonald’s teammates might not be as quick as she is, but they appear to be following her lead.
“I think they are seeing that it’s a fun style,” Barnes said. “You can create scoring opportunities on fast breaks when they can just play. They are doing everything I ask and playing with heart and passion. I love that style of play.
“It’s pretty impressive if you are seeing the difference in our pressure.”
The swarming defense cuts off passing lanes and doesn’t give the offense much space. The Wildcats have 114 steals, with Thomas and McDonald leading the way with 25 apiece. Tee Tee Starks, who Barnes calls a lockdown defender, has 15.
The scheme doesn’t look like anything opposing teams have seen in the last few years.
There’s more to it than just the technical side.
“To me, the mentality changed the most,” said forward Dominique McBryde. “We want to shut down teams, hold them under a certain number of points, and get in their shorts.”
It’s not just McDonald. McDonald is the only player in the country averaging more than 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals per game.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see it’s about more than just her. Bryce Nixon had four steals and Thomas scored 14 points — including four 3-pointers — in a win over UTEP.
Against Montana, five players — McDonald, Reece, Thomas, McBryde and Semaj Smith — scored in double figures and UA scored 100 points. Reese added 18 rebounds.
Lucia Alonso scored 15 points, hitting 5 of 9 three-pointers, against San Diego State. Against Incarnate Word, Starks grabbed nine rebounds and Smith added five blocks.
“I think we share the ball better and everybody has an important role that is key,” guard Lucia Alonso said. “Last year we really didn’t have a post player. Now, with Semaj, Dominique, Destiny and Cate we have more options and advantages inside. This helps guards to drive, shoot, and pass. This year everyone knows where they need to be, so it’s easier and I can just pass them the ball.”
Alonso already has 39 assists this season. Barnes says her first recruit is the most improved.
“Lucia runs our team,” Barnes said. “She takes care of the ball and gets it to people in the right places. She’s a really smart player, a true point guard who does so many little things.”
Everyone seems to understand their roles.
“Everyone is super-positive, we stay together, and we listen to one another,” Graham said. “We only want to help each other get better and grow. It’s easier to play with people when you all know what you are doing. Yes, for the freshman it may click slower, but it clicks. Playing with people who know how to play basketball is fun.”
With fun comes focus. The Wildcats are so dialed-in that Thomas didn’t know the team had a nine-game winning streak. Barnes didn’t tell her players how high they’re ranked defensively.
Stats aren’t the point — at least not in December.
“We want to celebrate our success, but at the same time we want to get better,” said Graham, who is the only four-year senior on the team. “We focus on doing what we did great and look at what we need to improve on and do that.
“In my years here this is the best feeling ever, kind of like a high. Once you have a taste of it (winning), you don’t want to lose.”
“Winning changes everything,” she said.
There’s more ball to play — starting with Sunday’s Pac-12 opener. While Barnes is happy with where the Wildcats are, she knows they have a tough conference schedule ahead of them.
“Now we are playing better teams and I am excited to see where we are at,” she said. “It’s a matter of putting it all together and see where we are against ranked teams. Confidence plays a huge role and winning cures a lot of things. Now we are playing better teams and some things will get exploited. Pac-12 play is no joke.
“Our goal is ‘on to the next one.’ We’re motivated and feeling good …” Barnes said.
“I’m not satisfied. There is so much more to do. Is this what I expected? Yes, I am happy. I knew I was going to recruit the right people and get my staff right. For me, I knew these kids were made for it — and that’s not just a cliché. I knew we were going to start winning.”
- The Wildcats open up Pac-12 season Sunday and play the Sun Devils in Tempe on Feb. 1. In the past, the teams have played twice in a span of three or four days.
“I think we talked about it and it’s hard playing the same team Friday and Sunday,” Barnes said. “Do I love playing this early? No. It’ll be a tough game after the break, but we’ll see how it goes.”