It wouldn’t take long for a marketing genius to compose a theme for Arizona’s 2018-19 women’s basketball season: Breaking Bad.
The Wildcats have been so bad for so long — losing November games to Iona, Cal-Bakersfield, Florida Gulf Coast, NAU and Cal-Northridge the last five seasons — that you get a sense Adia Barnes’ team not only intends to break bad, but to pulverize it with a sledgehammer, set it afire and raise some hell for the first time since 2005.
You want bad? Since the Pac-12 was formed in 2011, Arizona has lost 105 conference games. No one else in the league, not even Washington State, has lost more than 84.
To properly set the stage for this long-awaited hell-raising, the UA produced a pre-game video for Friday’s season opener in which Barnes wore a don’t-mess-with-me expression as she walked down a McKale Center corridor with a hit squad assembled for the ’18-19 season, including coveted newcomers Cate Reese, Aari McDonald and Dominique McBryde.
It didn’t take long to break the bad.
Reese, the school’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American, scored 10 points in the first quarter. She didn’t miss a shot. Talk about a memorable college debut: Reese hit buzzer-beaters at the end of the first and second quarters, finished with a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double and helped to bury Idaho State 71-46.
Friday’s game was a baby step toward relevance, but nonetheless a step that the last 13 Arizona women’s basketball teams were unable to make. This is get-in-on-the-ground-floor stuff.
The Wildcats were predicted to finish 10th in the Pac-12 media day poll. About 30 minutes before Friday’s tipoff, there was no waiting at any of the three ticket bays open at McKale Center.
All 1,226 in attendance entered through the same McKale Center door. It’s not like they’ve been expecting a crowd for UA women’s hoops since forever. That looks like it will soon change.
Barnes didn’t bite off too much in the nonconference season, and wisely so.
The Pac-12 schedule is ridiculously difficult; there will be 10 games against the group of No 3 Oregon, No. 7 Stanford, No. 8 Oregon State, No. 23 Cal and No. 24 Arizona State. To make it more crazy, the Wildcats will “miss” predicted Nos. 11-12, Washington State and Washington, as part of the league’s schedule rotation.
Arizona lined up a schedule in which an 11-0 season-opening run is possible. It plays South Carolina State, Incarnate Word and Montana. Toughest pre-conference foe? Probably Loyola-Marymount, which plays at McKale on Tuesday.
“LMU beat UCLA the other day,” said Barnes. “That’ll be a good test for us.”
The schedule also requires perspective. Arizona has been down for so long that last year it lost to NAU by 18 points. Thus, a Dec. 21 McKale Center rematch with the Lumberjacks will be a measuring stick of sorts.
“I’m going to be careful scheduling for the next few years,” said Barnes. “The Pac-12 is so competitive you have to be smart. You’ll gradually see our schedule get a little better.
“When we get to where I know we can be, then you’ll see tougher opponents. You can’t play a rigorous non-conference schedule and go against all of the ranked teams in the Pac-12. You’ll get killed.”
Arizona isn’t likely to “get killed” as Barnes mentioned. Reese has a chance to be outstanding, a four-year, franchise-type player. McDonald, the sophomore point guard, has the look of someone who could be an all-conference player for three years. She is terrific.
That’s a twosome that can make you forget the last five years, in which Arizona went 3-15, 4-14, 1-17, 3-15 and 3-15 in the Pac-12.
In her UA debut, McDonald hit double-figures in rebounds even though she can’t be any taller than 5 feet 5 inches.
Yet she was the game’s leading rebounder.
“I’m a very aggressive player,” said McDonald, who was a starting point guard on Washington’s 2017 Sweet 16 team. McConald said all the right things after Friday’s game, insisting she needs to eliminate turnovers and shoot better. “I think we did OK, but I still have things to work on,” she said.
Reese, whose parents were in town from Texas to watch her first college game, didn’t disappoint anyone, nor was she in awe of a bigger stage.
“I got a lot of double-doubles last year,” she said. “I’m used to it. This season, we have to prove to others that we’re not the same team we were last year. We showed tonight. that we’re making a statement.”
A glimpse of Barnes’ fire was on display with four minutes remaining.
After McDonald was bumped out of bounds in a mid-court collision, Barnes, intense, got in the face of referee Alejandro Moreno.
Even thought her team led 59-38, Barnes still had her foot on the accelerator. What a change; for the last 13 years, Arizona has mostly been asleep at the wheel.