The Arizona State women’s basketball team couldn’t catch a break with their cold shooting against rival University of Arizona.
But more significantly, they also couldn’t catch sophomore guard Aari McDonald.
The transfer from Washington had little trouble getting to the basket, using a quick step off the dribble to gain easy access to the rim, which she did often during Sunday’s 51-39 upset win over the No. 17-ranked Sun Devils.
“I knew it would be a foot race to the paint,” the 5’7″ guard said after the game. “I knew once I lost the first screen, they wouldn’t be able to catch up with me going to the rim.”
Her coach says there isn’t a player in the country that can guard her off the dribble.
McDonald finished with a game-high 24 points and also added six rebounds, three assists, and two steals to her day’s work in front of a wildly-appreciative crowd of 5,006 at McKale Center on the UofA campus. She has scored 20 or more points in nine of the team’s dozen games so far this season, leading the Wildcats to an 11-1 record.
This was an important win for the Arizona program — and especially for its third-year head coach, Adia Barnes. Barnes is coming off a couple of sub-par seasons to start her tenure in Tucson, and the program itself has had a rough road through the rugged Pac-12 Conference in recent years. The Cats have generally enjoyed success in the non-conference portion of their schedule, raising fans’ hopes for a much-needed turnaround season. But the optimism soon fades once conference play starts.
And this year’s weak non-conference schedule made the critics especially skeptical of the early-season success.
Three out of the last four years, the Wildcats posted nine-win marks in non-conference play. Barnes went 9-2 for the 2016-17 campaign, but finished the season 14-16, with just five Pac-12 victories. Her predecessor, Niya Butts went 9-3 in the non-conference portion of the schedule both of the previous two years – her last two before being fired. She finished both seasons with a combined total of six conference wins.
Last year was the exception to the rule. The Cats were just awful, in both parts of the schedule, finishing 6-24 overall, with four wins before the conference schedule started, and just two during Pac-12 play.
So Barnes needed a good start to the conference schedule this year. And beating a ranked team – that is also your in-state rival – was a perfect way to begin the quest for relevancy. And maybe a little respect.
ASU (9-3) found out what it’s like to play against the team that ranks No. 5 nationally in scoring defense. Arizona’s defense had more than a little to do with the Sun Devils scoring a season-low 39 points, the fewest they have scored against a Wildcat team since the 1975-76 season. ASU shot 23 percent from the field and 17 percent from behind the arc.
It had been four years since Arizona last beat an ASU team by double digits.
Senior forward Kianna Ibis topped the Devils’ scoring with 11 points, the only ASU player to score in double figures.
McDonald’s 24 points led the Wildcats, while sophomore forward Sam Thomas scored 11, but also had four rebounds, two blocked shots, and a couple of steals. Dominique McBryde, the redshirt junior who sat out last season after transferring in from Purdue, had six points, but made major contributions on the defensive end. The 6’2″ forward collected nine rebounds, and had four steals and two blocks.
The Sun Devils dropped to No. 22 after the loss in Tucson, but it looks like it will take at least one more big upset before Arizona cracks the Top 25.
They are about to get plenty of those opportunities. The Cats play No. 18 California next week, followed by No. 6 Stanford two days later, and No. 5 Oregon the following week.
Is this year’s Wildcat team for real? We’ll know in a couple of weeks.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)