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What we learned from Arizona’s win vs. No. 17 ASU

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The Wildcats celebrate on the bench during their victory over No. 17 ASU
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The Arizona women’s basketball team upset No. 17 ASU on Sunday in Tucson to begin Pac-12 play.

The Wildcats have won 10 straight, improving to 11-1. Our full recap can be found here, and here are some additional takeaways:

Non-conference? Who cares?

Arizona coach Adia Barnes got asked about her easy non-conference schedule. A lot. She had to feel at least a bit vindicated by her team’s performance against the No. 17 Sun Devils.

“I was asked (about the easy non-conference schedule) several times, and I did not care” Barnes said. “The reason why is that I have a plan. And if we had been getting crushed in the non-conference, we don’t play like this.

“So, we have confidence. We’re on a 10-game winning streak. We’re playing some good basketball. So, that’s exactly where I wanted to be. Tonight showed me where we’re at.”

The Wildcats seized the opportunity when they finally got their shot at a ranked team, showing the potential to “surprise some people,” as Barnes has said.

“Arizona State is a great team,” Arizona guard Aari McDonald said. “They were ranked. And I definitely think that this win proved that we can do some big things in the conference.”

Can anyone guard Aari McDonald?

McDonald, who entered as the nation’s third-leading scorer, spent her evening blowing by Sun Devil defenders on the way to the rack, finishing with 24 points on nine made field goals. No one could stay in front of her. Kiara Russell and Reili Richardson both tried, but neither was up to the task.

“She’s one of the best guards in the country,” Barnes said. “I knew she would be. That’s why I recruited her to Washington. She’s hard to guard. A lot of times, she would go through the first defense. The second line could not guard her, because they were on their heels. And she’s still unselfish.”

Barnes believes it’s a matter of time before teams start throwing a zone at the Wildcats to try to contain McDonald. Then, they will need to be able to shoot better from the outside. San Diego State was able to stymie Arizona a bit with the zone during the first half of their non-conference matchup.

It all flows from the defense

At Friday’s press conference, Barnes was asked whether she thought offense or defense was stronger going into Pac-12 play. She replied that her team was much stronger defensively. The victory over the Sun Devils backed her up.

“We played a really good defensive team, and we played good defense,” Barnes said. “So, it shows me that we’re going to be one of the best defensive teams in the conference also. We have a chance to be. Now we just have to sustain that.”

ASU shot only 23.2 percent for the game, including 4 for 23 from outside. While some of that was just poor shooting on the part of the Sun Devils, Arizona’s relentless defense had a great deal to do with it.

The Wildcats had five blocks and 10 steals as a team. They turned 17 Sun Devil turnovers into 12 points.

“We had some awesome defensive stops,” Barnes said. “Our defense was spectacular.”

McDonald agreed with her coach, attributing the victory to “just guarding our yard.”

“This one right here,” Sam Thomas said in reference to McDonald, “her on-ball defense is amazing. She’s like one of the best that I’ve ever seen.”

Record wins

The 10-game winning streak tied the longest such streak in program history. Arizona had 10-game streaks in both the 1996-97 and 2003-04 seasons. They will get the chance to extend the streak when they travel to Utah and Colorado next weekend.

Fouls

Barnes has spoken about cleaning up the “silly fouls” her team was committing in the last few non-conference games. For most of the game, the Wildcats avoided them against the Sun Devils. Cate Reese had to sit on a few occasions, and Destiny Graham had three fouls by halftime. Overall, though, the team seemed to avoid the reach-ins that often plagued them during the pre-conference season.

In the fourth quarter, they started to pile up, though. By the end of the game, both Reese and Dominique McBryde had four. McDonald, Graham and Lucia Alonso all ended the game with three.

“This was probably a very tough game to officiate,” Barnes said. “It was very physical. Everyone was hand-checking. It’s a tough game to officiate, but I think we weathered that. At times, we were in foul trouble. It limited Cate. It limited Destiny. It limited Dominique at times. But we still found a way.”

View of an ASU fan

One Sun Devil fan stopped to talk as he was leaving McKale. He said, “I can’t remember the last time ASU looked so bad.”

While the Sun Devils did have two losses coming into tonight, they were both to top 5 teams and they weren’t dominated in either game. Early in November, they lost to Baylor after leading at the half. Later in the same month, they lost by two against Louisville.

In contrast, Arizona handled ASU from the start on Sunday. Out of the gates, they rushed out to a 7-0 lead and never really looked back. While the Sun Devils were able to tie it up in the first half, they couldn’t get over the hump and take the lead at any point.

Community support

The game drew just over 5,000 fans despite being aired on the Pac-12 Networks. While there was also a good crowd who made the drive down from Tempe, the number of Wildcat fans in attendance dwarfed anything but the School Day Game earlier this month.

“The crowd was amazing,” Barnes said. “To come here for our rivalry and support us. In a perfect situation, you don’t want a 20-27 half. That kind of sucks for a crowd. But the way that we were both playing defense and the hustle and intensity, it was kind of like a rugby match the first half. And the fans...it was so loud sometimes, I couldn’t call a play.”

“They put the hard work in,” Barnes said about her team. “We need the city to come out and support us. And it’s happening. It’s what I expected. I didn’t expect anything else. When I played here, we had 3-to-4,000 a game.”