UA women’s basketball program building on 2010 success

It’s still too early in the basketball season to be able to judge whether the University of Arizona women’s basketball team is ready for the next big step in the rebuilding process.

But there isn’t any question the Cats can put the points on the board.

A squad that is laden with young talent has opened the season with three straight wins, averaging 80 points a game.  The 88-46 win against Georgia Southern set a school record for the most three-pointers made in a single game.  The 15 treys eclipsed the old mark of 13, set in 1998.

The last game was against Wichita State, a 74-60 victory in the Cats’ home opener.  In that game, Davellyn Whyte, a junior guard from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, topped all scorers with 34 points.

Whyte is leading the charge this season, with 23.3 points per game.  But right behind is a 5’5″ sophomore guard from Georgia, Candice Warthen, who is averaging 21.7 per game.  And a 6’2″ sophomore forward, Erica Barnes, is the leading rebounder, with 10 boards a game.

Barnes is attempting to lessen the impact from losing Ify Ibekwe to graduation last year.  The 6’2″ Ibekwe led the Pac-10 in rebounding, with 10 per outing.

Shanita Arnold is the senior on the floor who is pulling it all together.  The 5’5″ guard from Arkansas is setting the table on offense and handing out 5.3 assists per game.

This group may be just what head coach, Niya Butts, needs to get to the next level after three years of rebuilding a program that had fallen off the national radar.  After a disappointing couple of years when the team went 12-19 and 14-17, last season proved to be a break-out year as Butts guided the Cats to a 20-12 record.

It was a significant improvement, engineered by Butts, who arrived in Tucson in 2008 after a five-year stint as an assistant coach at Kentucky.  She replaced a hall of fame coach, Joan Bonvicini, who had guided the Cats to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in her 17 seasons at the helm – but had gone 29-63 in her last three seasons in Tucson.

And last year’s team almost made it back to the Big Dance.  But when they suffered a 101-71 embarrassment at the hands of Stanford in the semi-finals of the Pac-10 Tournament, they fell out of consideration for the NCAA Tournament and settled instead for an invitation to the NIT.

That didn’t work out really well, either.  They exited in the first round, following a 103-95 loss to Utah State.

But, with a 20-win season under their belts, a fourth-place conference finish, and their first post-season appearance in a decade, this year’s edition has some momentum and a new dose of confidence.

They will take that, and a 3-0 record, into tomorrow night’s meeting with New Mexico State (1-2) at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces.

Arizona won last year’s match-up at McKale when the Cats strolled to a 71-59 victory to give them a 13-11 edge all-time between the two teams.

However, the Cats don’t play so well in New Mexico.  They’re 3-9 on the Aggie’s floor.

But they need this win, and a bunch more, if they want that invitation to the dance this year.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)