The Arizona Wildcats got started early on Wednesday, tipping off their School Day game at 11 a.m. in front of a mass of local schoolchildren. With a crowd of 4,703 filling McKale Center, the Wildcats dominated in a 100-51 victory over the Montana Grizzlies.
“It was great to come back after a road win, come back in front of all these little kids,” sophomore forward Sam Thomas said. “Everyone had an opportunity to get a lot of people in double digits, rebounding. A lot of people got career highs today, like Semaj (Smith).”
“It was fun,” Thomas added when asked about the crowd noise from the children. “It was great to play in that atmosphere.”
The Wildcats started slow from the field, shooting only 30.7% through the first media timeout. They were ready to crash the boards from the opening possession, though, pulling down seven offensive rebounds over the same period. Arizona pushed out to a 14-8 lead largely on the strength of second chance points.
It didn’t take long for the offense to wake up. By the end of the first half, they were shooting 47.5% from the field on their way to a 53-25 lead at the break. When they put the finishing touches on the win, they had raised that to 51.4%.
“We reached all of our goals,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “We wanted to win on the boards. We wanted to win in the paint. We wanted to have a certain amount of turnovers. I think the turnovers were kind of bad, but...”
Aari McDonald and Cate Reese led the way with 12 points each in the first 20 minutes. Tee Tee Starks and Thomas threw in nine apiece. Every player who suited up for Arizona got into the game, and all but two had points on the board by the time half-time rolled around.
For Thomas, her nine points in the early going exceeded her average offensive output for the season. While she has averaged 2.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per game in the first seven games, she has only averaged 7 points. She had that many in the first quarter, and ended the game with only her second outing with double-digit points this season. Her day wound up with 12 points, six assists, eight rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
“I felt tonight that she was really agressive,” Barnes said. “I felt like she asserted herself. She wasn’t just a spot-up-in-the-corner shooter. She drove to the basket, she got offensive rebounds and put-backs. That’s the Sam Thomas that I know she can be. For sure, Sam Thomas and Dominique (McBryde) can be that third scorer. That’s what I expect of them. I’m not surprised. I just want her to stay this aggressive.”
The Wildcats continued their dominance on the boards throughout the game. In the first half, they led 28-11 in rebounding. Reese had already put together a double-double in the opening 20 minutes, adding 10 rebounds to her 12 points.
As a team, Arizona would end the day out-rebounding the Grizzlies 50-22. Reese accounted for 18 of those, setting a new career high.
When all was said and done, all but one of the nine players who suited up exceeded their season averages in scoring.
McDonald led the way yet again. Before leaving the game with four minutes left to go, she accounted for 28 points, four assists, four steals and six rebounds.
Reese had yet another double-double with her 20 points and 18 rebounds. She added three blocks and three steals on the defensive end.
As Thomas noted, center Semaj Smith had a career-high 13 points. Her 6-for-9 shooting included 1-for-2 from beyond the arc. She also had a block, an assist and a steal that she took down the court for a break-away layup.
Thomas, who played with Smith during their days in travel ball, said that her freshman teammate has changed in her ability to make her presence known.
“She was real quiet,” Thomas said. “She wasn’t really a big presence. She was obviously big, but she wouldn’t make herself as big as she does now. So, I’m really proud of her this year.”
Barnes agreed that it was an important game for Smith.
“This was a coming out game for her,” Barnes said. “And I think this was a really good confidence game, because Semaj is going to be a very important part of what we do and our success moving forward.”
In all, the Wildcats had five players score in double digits. Tee Tee Starks came close to joining them, tying her season high with nine points.
Arizona was efficient at turning defense into offense. Eight of the nine Wildcats came away with at least one steal, accounting for 16 of the Grizzlies’ 22 turnovers. Those turnovers were turned into 36 points.
“We wanted to come into this game and really work on the things that we need to work on to get better in this stretch before the Pac-12,” Barnes said. “I thought we had the intensity that we needed tonight.”
While Barnes was happy with the play of the team, she said that they still have things to work on before the Pac-12 season rolls around. For one, she wanted the Wildcats to play deeper into the shot clock against Montana, because it’s unlikely that they will be able to get their first option against Pac-12 competition.
Other things the team needs to address include contesting shots, Barnes said.
“I felt like we got sucked in too much and they got a lot of open shots.”
With the dwindling depth and the looming step up in competition, Barnes has also become concerned with the number of fouls the team is committing. The Wildcats were called for 19 fouls, giving the Grizzlies 20 attempts from the free throw line.
“We can be aggressive,” she said, “but knowing when to be aggressive and when to be contained. Those are things we need to work on.”
The Wildcats have three more games to work on those things before they open the conference season against the Arizona State Sun Devils. Their next test is on the road against Long Beach State on Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. MST.
Here’s Adia Barnes on Arizona Women's Basketball’s 100-51 win over MontanaPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, December 5, 2018
Sam Thomas and Tee Tee Starks
Sam Thomas and Tee Tee Starks break down Arizona Women's Basketball’s win over MontanaPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, December 5, 2018