UA women’s basketball could finally catch rival ASU

Arizona State women’s basketball team has enjoyed an in-state dominance over rival Arizona for the past five years.  UofA fans have endured, waiting for their Wildcats to begin catching up.

Finally, the wait may be over.

With one game left in the regular season, Arizona has a chance to finish in a tie with ASU for third place in the Pac-10.  But they need a little help from the Sun Devils.

The Wildcats need a win today against Oregon, combined with an ASU loss in their game on the road against Oregon State.  That would give both teams a 10-8 mark in conference.  If USC also pulls off a win today against Washington, it would be three-way tie.

Arizona has already beaten Oregon earlier this season, when the Cats equaled their highest offensive output of the season in a 109-94 win at McKale Center.  ASU beat Oregon State in the final December game, but by just three points, 49-46.

There couldn’t be much better parity between the Arizona schools if you looks at this season’s statistics.  Not only are they neck-and-neck in conference, but their overall records are almost mirror images of each other.  ASU is 18-9, Arizona is 18-10.

But it’s been a struggle for the Wildcats to get to this point.

This is the third year in a rebuilding program for head coach, Niya Butts, who arrived in 2008 from the University of Kentucky, where she was an assistant for five years.  That program, too, was in a rebuilding mode.

Butts replaced long-time head coach, Joan Bonvicini, who enjoyed great success guiding the program since 1991.  The Cats made seven NCAA Tournament appearances in her 17 seasons.

In 2005, Bonvicini’s squad finished 24-9 and tied for first place in the conference, earning its final trip to the NCAA Championships.  But that turned out to be the end of the road in Tucson for the widely-respected coach.

The program began to slide after that and the next three seasons resulted in a combined 29-63 record and the school decided to release the coach before the final year of her contract began.  She finished at Arizona with a 287-223 record.

It has been a slow climb back to prominence.  Butts went 12-19 her first year on the job and 14-17 last year.  But the 14 wins were the most in five years.

Both years, the Cats were bounced from the Pac-10 Tournament in the opening round, both times by No. 1-seeded Stanford.

But this year, a senior forward named Ify Ibekwe has led the Arizona program out of the woods.  She is averaging 15.5 points per game, second only to sophomore guard Davellyn Whyte, who just shades her with 15.6 per outing.

The Cats have a third player averaging double figures, as junior guard Shanita Arnold is producing 11 per game.

But perhaps the more important contribution from the 6’2″ Ibekwe is on the glass.  She is leading the Pac-10 in both defensive rebounds (6.9 pg) and overall rebounding (9.8 pg).

In Thursday’s encounter with Oregon State, she played the entire game and posted her 11th double-double of the season, with 15 points and 16 boards.

She also contributed five steals, three assists, and four blocked shots.  She brings the entire package with each game.

Arizona won Thursday’s game, 50-46, but wasn’t particularly impressive in the effort.  They held a slight rebounding edge, 40-39, shot 36 percent from the field, just 10 percent from behind the arc, and were turnover-prone.

Arizona State also comes into today’s game off a road win, downing Oregon, 75-66.  Their offense was in rhythm, as Kimberly Brandon hit 20 points, Dymond Simon added 17, and Becca Tobin had 15.

But the Devils’ defense had lapses, particularly in the second half when the Ducks went on a 27-9 run and forced ASU, which had been ahead by 17 points in the first half, to come back in the final minutes from a six-point deficit.

Both Arizona teams have a lot riding on their final regular-season games today, above and beyond the comparisons to each other.  Both are looking at the possibility of earning a seat at the Big Dance.

For ASU, it would be the sixth time in the last seven years that it has advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

For Arizona, it would cap off a long climb back to the top.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)