After Sunday’s 73-61 win over Arizona State, the Wildcats’ head coach, Niya Butts, said something interesting.
“Our season isn’t defined by (whether) we beat Arizona State,” said the third-year head coach at Arizona who has struggled in her efforts to rebuild a moribund basketball program in Tucson.
That’s kinda hard to grasp when you realize this was the first time the Wildcats beat their hated rivals since 2005. Eleven straight losses.
This near-historic win has to be considered the shining moment for a team with a 14-9 record at this point, resting in seventh place in the Pac-10 standings.
Sunday’s win also meant that Butts’ squad has equaled its win total from all of last season.
Not a defining game? Who is she trying to kid?
Every player on that Wildcat team knew how important that game was. They practiced hard to get ready and then played even harder, putting defensive pressure on the Sun Devils and mixing it up with a zone, man-to-man, and a full-court press to keep ASU off balance.
Perhaps none of the players knew the significance of this win more than Ify Ibekwe.
Before Sunday, the senior didn’t know what it felt like to win a rivalry game. The Cats’ losing streak began two years before Ibekwe donned an Arizona uniform.
The 6’2″ scoring machine from Carson, Calif., was fighting an illness when the two teams met earlier this year and was unable to contribute any kind of offense in the Cats’ 75-43 loss at Wells Fargo Arena.
But this time she was ready to put on a show for the rockin’ crowd of 3,310 fans who showed up at McKale Center.
Ibekwe scored 22 points and dominated the glass, pulling down 22 rebounds for her ninth double-double of the season. The 22 boards matched her career best; a blocked shot and two steals were just icing on the cake.
ASU (14-8, 6-6) trailed for most of the game, but entered the half just a point down at 28-27. After the half, Arizona took a 38-31 lead before the Sun Devils closed the gap again, and then the redshirt senior from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, Dymond Simon, connected on a trey that gave the visitors a two-point lead at 47-45.
But the Cats pulled away again for good when they engineered an 11-2 run that left the Devils with just over five minutes to catch up. It wasn’t enough time.
Simon finished with 21 points, including five straight that gave the Devils a glimmer of hope with less than three minutes to play, and Becca Tobin, the 6’5″ senior forward from Cactus High School in Glendale, contributed nine rebounds in the losing effort.
For Arizona, Davellyn Whyte notched her ninth consecutive game in double figures, with 14 points. The sophomore guard – also from St. Mary’s High – has recorded double-digit scoring in 21 of 23 games this season.
Now Butts needs to keep her squad focused and avoid the aura of over-confidence that often sets in after a huge win.
There are still six games left in the regular season. UCLA, which has lost just one conference game, is among the six teams left to play. That is a big bump in the road ahead, but – mathematically at least – a 20-win mark is still within reach.
As long as Ify stays healthy.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)