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Shorthanded Arizona women’s basketball shakes off the rust to defeat Washington State, honor Aari McDonald

Aari McDonald (left)
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Having the best player in program history back for your conference opener is a big deal, especially when she’s being inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor. Trying to get your coach her 100th career win is, too. So is having a senior move into the top 10 on your all-time scoring list.

Would the Arizona Wildcats be able to make it a happy occasion all the way around with a win over Washington State? They would have to do so after missing three games and not facing another team in three weeks.

And they did, but not without difficulty.

“I think it was a little bit of mental lapses,” said senior forward Cate Reese. “I think it just comes from kind of being a little rusty. We haven’t played in a while. I think that we’ll get obviously get better at those things.”

A long time spent off the court can lead to rust. Rust wasn’t the only difference for the Wildcats, though. The starting lineup was considerably different than the one Arizona has relied on for most of the season, but the Wildcats fought through in a chippy game to defeat Washington State 60-52.

On Jan. 5, head coach Adia Barnes initially said that sophomore post Lauren Ware would be available. Ware suffered an injury in the opening seconds of the game against North Dakota State on Dec. 9 and hasn’t played since. However, Barnes added that if she saw anything that suggested it was better to hold Ware out, she would do so. Apparently, she saw something because Ware was in street clothes.

More surprising was the absence of starting point guard Shaina Pellington. In her place was junior guard Helena Pueyo.

“I’m always ready,” Pueyo said. “So tonight, I had the opportunity to do it. And yeah, it was fun. I enjoy it a lot.”

There was no reason given for Pellington’s absence, She was not at the game, but Barnes said she might be back when the team travels to Los Angeles on Sunday to play USC.

“She’s just out,” Barnes said.

Reese led the team with 20 points, 7 rebounds, an assist, and 3 steals. She was joined in double digits by Pueyo, who had 12 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks while committing no turnovers and no fouls.

Sam Thomas came up big with 8 points, 6 rebounds, a career-high 8 assists, and a block.

In the absence of two starters, Arizona had a very uneven performance. It held WSU to single-digit points in the first and third quarters but gave up 19 in the second and 21 in the fourth.

In the third quarter, former Arizona star Aari McDonald—who was back to have her name put in the Arizona Ring of Honor—sat down with the Pac-12 Network’s announcing team. Her former teammates took over on the court.

The Wildcats outscored the Cougars 23-7 coming out of the locker room. When the third quarter was over, the home team led 46-31.

In the midst of the run, Reese moved into Arizona’s top 10 all-time scoring list, passing Dana Patterson’s 1,299 career points scored from 1985-88. Reese ended the game with 1,306 points for her career.

“It’s great,” Reese said. “I came to Arizona to be an impact player, to leave a legacy, and I think that I’m doing that and I think that it’s my teammates are just finding me on the floor. So they do a great job of that and I’m just really happy that I could get that tonight.”

The third-quarter run didn’t last. After taking a 15-point lead at the end of the third, the Wildcats let the Cougars close it to two points with under a minute to go in the game.

Technical fouls on the Washington State bench with 41.7 to go gave the Wildcats a 57-52 lead and the ball. After the game, Cougars head coach Kamie Ethridge said that she was speaking to her players, but the officials mistakenly thought she was swearing at them and called the technical. The quick whistle may have been related to several near-altercations between opposing players, but it was a crucial call that helped save the Wildcats.

Washington State was led by Krystal Leger-Walker with 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and a steal.

Her younger sister Charlisse Leger-Walker, who leads the team with 16.6 points per game, was held to seven points primarily by the defense of Thomas. Charlisse also contributed six rebounds, an assist, and a steal, but had five turnovers.

“Sam is always put on probably one of the best players out of the guards,” Reese said. “I mean, that’s just what she’s known for. She’s a defensive stopper and I think that that’s nothing new for her.”

Despite Charlisse’s struggles, Arizona was lucky to sneak out with the win on its home court. Beyond the late technical that went their way, the Wildcats had difficulty in multiple facets of the game, and it wasn’t a new phenomenon.

Turnovers were a problem for both teams. Arizona finished with 15, which turned into 19 points for Washington State. Five of the nine players who got minutes for the Wildcats had at least two turnovers.

“If we would have taken care of the basketball,...the game would have been really different,” Barnes said. “I think we could have won by double digits.”

The Wildcats forced 18 turnovers from the Cougars but were only able to turn those into 10 points. They also struggled from the foul line, hitting just 16 of 24. That has been a recurring theme so far this season.

Another old problem—losing the rebounding game—reared its head again, as well. Washington State outrebounded Arizona 35-29 and got eight offensive boards to just two for the Wildcats.

Still, all’s well that ends well. Arizona was able to survive after playing no games in three weeks and with two missing starters. It allowed Barnes to reach 100 wins faster than any coach in Arizona women’s basketball history, surpassing her own coach, Joan Bonvicini.