You can argue that any weekend in the Pac-12 is a big test, but the Arizona Wildcats will be heading into the teeth of the conference over the next two weeks as they face four straight ranked teams. That kicks off Friday evening against the California Golden Bears.
The Wildcats got big news when they learned that sophomore guard Aari McDonald had been named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 watch list. That came just after she was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week for the third time this season. This weekend, they will face two of the other five Pac-12 players who landed on the Wooden Award list in Cal’s Kristine Anigwe and Stanford’s Alanna Smith.
“We’re playing two very good teams, very well-coached teams, and teams that have a lot of different strengths,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said.
Cal (10-2, 1-1 Pac-12) comes in ranked No. 21 in the USA Today/WBCA Coaches Poll and No. 24 in the AP, largely on the back of Anigwe. Anigwe, who is the nation’s top rebounder and ninth-ranked scorer, will challenge Arizona’s interior defense.
If they hope to contain Anigwe, the Wildcats’ post players must cut down on fouls. Dominique McBryde struggled with foul trouble early in the season, and Cate Reese has had to spend time on the bench in recent games for the same reason.
“Cate is extremely important,” Barnes said. “Sam Thomas, extremely important. Dominique, extremely important. Destiny (Graham) and Tee Tee (Starks) off the bench are really important.”
Reese, the program’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American, is only averaging 2.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in conference play after nearly averaging a double-double in non-conference, so getting her going is critical, too.
“Cate’s a starter, so I obviously believe in her tremendously,” Barnes said. “She is a freshman, so she’s going to be inconsistent. I don’t know any freshmen who have a perfect game every game. But it’s not all about scoring. I didn’t think she played awful in the second half against Utah. I think she did pretty good. She didn’t score, but she got great rebounds, she played good defense, she was tough. So, we have to find a way to get her to score and rebound, but I think that’s just what she does. She’ll do that. She just has to stay out of foul trouble, so we’re working on footwork and to be in a little bit better situations. But she has the ability to do that and I have the utmost trust in her.”
When Arizona faces off against No. 6 Stanford (12-1, 2-0 Pac-12), they will face a different kind of forward in Alanna Smith. Like Anigwe, Smith shoots over 50% from inside the arc. Unlike Anigwe, she also spends a lot of time outside the arc. Smith is 34 for 71 from behind the three-point line this season. Her 47.9% shooting from distance has helped her to average 19.3 points per game. That scoring average ranks her sixth in the conference.
Smith is also a defensive presence, tied for 30th in the nation in blocked shots with 2.15 per game. That’s good for first in the Pac-12.
“These are two more tests against two highly-ranked teams,” Barnes said. “But it’s also two games that we’re not expected to win. So, do we have anything to lose? No.”
What Barnes does hope she can rely on is the city of Tucson, which turned out over 5,000 fans for the Pac-12 opener against Arizona State.
“I’m hoping that the city rallies behind us, because I want to have 6,000 people at this game, not five,” she said. “I want to pack the house. I want to create an environment here where it’s really awesome and it’s hard to play. I think we can do that.”
How to watch
Friday, Jan. 11 vs. No. 24 California at 7 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Network
Sunday, Jan. 13 vs. No. 6 Stanford at 12 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Network