In a season full of firsts in the Adia Barnes coaching era, the Wildcats accomplished one more: a weekend sweep of Pac-12 teams.
The Wildcats upended Colorado 63-51 at McKale Center Sunday afternoon with a total team effort. It is the first time since the 2010-11 season that the program has swept a weekend during the Pac-12 season.
On a day that called for Unity — UA partnered with RISE for the second consecutive season in promoting use the power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress — the Wildcats came out of the gate ready to get after it.
“It’s really exciting. I think anytime you can get a sweep in this league it’s huge,” said Barnes. “I think it’s been a real mental thing for us on Sundays. We just have not played well. So I think it’s one of those ‘Oh, we have to play well.’ This morning we did a semi, not a shoot-around, but more than we normally do. Because I have to figure out how to get us more focused. I had to find a different way. What we were doing wasn’t working.
“I think it’s a big step for us to be able to win two games we are supposed to. We have not done that in this program.”
The defense was relentless as ever, holding the Buffs to 30.6 percent shooting. Aari McDonald was flying around on — and off — the court, ending up in the laps of fans and her coaches. Sam Thomas swatted four blocks for her second straight game. And their teammates were altering shots and not giving the Buffs space.
Colorado (11-14, 1-13) has faced multiple injuries this season as senior Kennedy Leonard, their top player, has missed 10 straight games due to an injury.
She came off the bench and played 11:43 minutes Sunday and scored five points. Just as Leonard was set to return, teammate Alexis Robinson took her place on the bench, as she hurt her knee in practice.
The Wildcats dominated the entire game — only giving up the lead one time, in the first quarter.
The UA led 35-24 at the half. Everyone got into the action — all but two players scored.
“Our ball movement is better. I think what you do see is we are sharing the ball better,” said Barnes. “We are playing really unselfish. We are looking to draw and get our teammates shots. That’s something conscious that we are doing a lot better.”
McDonald got off to a slow start, scoring only four points in the first quarter — all on free throws. With Lucia Alonso missing her second consecutive game with an ankle injury, McDonald was forced into the point guard position for nearly all of the 38 minutes she played.
This was the first time this season she didn’t score at least 15 points. She ended up with 13 points, nine assists and four steals.
“I knew after a couple of shots I wasn’t on, so I am not going to keep shooting and force some stuff,” said McDonald. “I definitely wanted to get my teammates involved more. My teammates did really good. They stepped up and were converting today.”
Cate Reese was the leading scorer with 17 points while adding nine rebounds. The only other Wildcat in double figures was Dominique McBryde with 13 — she made all five of her attempts from the field.
The Wildcats started the third quarter on a 7-0 run to break the game wide open. McBryde finished a break off an assist from Tee Tee Starks, then nailed a 3. McDonald finished it off with a steal and a layup.
Arizona hits the road next week, playing at No. 10 Stanford and Cal.
Just how big was this sweep?
“I think this was huge for the program, huge for their confidence,” said Barnes. “And we are in a pretty good situation. We know what is ahead of us next week going to the Bay and then playing Oregon at home. We don’t have as much pressure if we can take care of this weekend, and we did.
“I think they understand that and they want to play in postseason. I think it’s not guaranteed, for sure. But we are a step closer, we are knocking on the door.”
Giffords takes in win
Former Rep. Gabby Giffords was at Sunday’s Unity Game and met with the Wildcats in the locker room before the contest. She was honored as a Champion of Change on the court after the first quarter.
“I’m the crazy person —we’re neighbors. I always saw her when she was walking her dog. I’d always drive by her and wanted to say something to her. And I never did,” said Barnes.
“But every time I did, I was like ‘I should say something. So two weeks ago I was like ‘I just want to tell you, you are an amazing woman and I love you.’ She looked at me, she smiled and said thank you. I went away thinking she doesn’t know who I am and probably thinks I am crazy.
“She is a champion of change. … She’s a phenomenal woman. I aspire to be as great as her one day. I really respect her for all the things she’s done — things that she is standing for, (like) change. I think having someone like that who is an inspiration and you should play a little harder.”
UA’s Sam Thomas received an award — Character Beyond Athletics — from the Touching Hearts Through Athletics organization. Gary Isaac or “Coach Grandpa” heads the group that honors students-athletes.