No. 4 Stanford tests UA women’s hoops…Cats fold again

Saturday’s loss to No. 4 Stanford was a litmus test of sorts for the Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball team, which had jumped out to an impressive start this season.

The Cats failed the test against Stanford.  Big time.

Let’s face it… wins over middle-of-the-road opponents are nice and they help to pad your record.  But if you really want to step back onto the national stage, you have to be able to play with the ranked teams.

Maybe not necessarily beat them, but at least be in the game.

The 40-point loss to the Cardinal says something about where the Arizona program belongs in the pecking order of major college programs.  And it’s not anywhere near the top.

Stanford enjoyed an afternoon of shooting practice, hitting 50 percent from the field; controlled the boards; and put up a stifling defense that held the Cats to 29.5 shooting in the 91-51 blowout at McKale Center.

Arizona’s top scorer for the game, sophomore guard Candice Warthen, just barely broke double digits with 13 points.

OK, so Stanford is the fourth-best team in the country, is undefeated in conference play, and has lost just one game in the 21 it has played this season.  But cross-state rival Arizona State was able to make a game of it when they faced the Cardinal last week, losing 62-49.  And ASU is little more than a .500 team in the Pac-12.

The Cats also lost to the Sun Devils, by the way, in a game that opened the conference schedule at the close of December.  They lost by 15 points and that game seemed to be the tipping point because Arizona has won just two games since.

Wins against UCLA and Oregon State are the only two in the last 11 games.  But, to be fair, those are pretty decent teams.  The Bruins are ranked No. 3 in the conference and Oregon State is tied for fourth place.

However, there are good teams in the conference… and then there is Stanford.  The Cardinal are the measuring stick for any team considering making a run in the NCAA Tournament.  And the Cats don’t measure up again this year.

Actually, they didn’t measure up any better last year when Stanford beat the Cats in the semi-finals of the Pac-10 Tournament – by 30 points.  That 101-71 loss spoke to the selection committee and effectively kept them from getting the bid to the NCAA Tournament they were hoping for, sending them instead to the NIT – where they lost in the first round.

Hopes were high again this year for post-season play – despite the fact that the Cats were projected in the pre-season polls to finish in ninth place in the conference.  The 10-1 start was the best in a decade and the program has shown signs of the rebuilding effort taking hold under head coach, Niya Butts, who is in her fourth year at the helm.  Last season’s 20-12 mark was encouraging and it looked like they were going to build on that this season.

However, the slide that began at the end of December has left them with a 13-10 record overall and a dismal 2-9 mark in conference, which puts them in last place.

From the penthouse to the outhouse in the span of just over a month.   They’re going to have to begin winning just to make it up to that ninth-place projection.

And that’s a major setback for a program that earned seven NCAA Tournament berths under former coach, Joan Bonvicini, before beginning to slide in recent years.  Butts took over after five years as an assistant at Kentucky and has slowly begun rebuilding, suffering through a couple of losing seasons before posting the 20-win record last year.

It looks like this isn’t the year they need to worry about matching up against teams like Stanford.  They’re still not ready for that.  Figuring out a way to survive the final seven games of the season is probably more in order.

“In terms of where we were, when we arrived, I think we’re probably on schedule.”  That was Butts talking about the season before it got underway.  “I’m very competitive, obviously I want it a lot sooner, but I think we’re certainly making strides in the program.”

That was certainly true for the first half of the season – until they hit ASU and the start of the conference schedule.

The Cats will get another shot at the Sun Devils when the rivals meet in Tucson on March 3 for the final game of the regular season.

However, there are no more opportunities to play Stanford.  And that’s probably a blessing for a team that appears to be a long way from playing at that level.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)