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Aari McDonald scores 36 points as Arizona upsets No. 24 Cal

Photo by Simon Asher

If the win over Arizona State didn’t convince you that Arizona is for real, this one will.

Led by 36 points from Aari McDonald and another stingy defensive effort, the Wildcats upset the No. 24 California Golden Bears 60-55 on Friday in McKale Center, their second win over a ranked team this season.

“This win just gives us confidence knowing that we beat two ranked teams,” McDonald said. “And we can do it again.”

The UA point guard notched 16 of her 23 second-half points in the fourth quarter, sinking seven free throws in the final minute after Cal’s Kristine Anigwe scored inside to tie it at 53 with 1:08 left.

McDonald, the nation’s second leading scorer, was 11 for 17 from the field, 5 for 8 from 3, and 9 for 11 from the charity stripe. It was her third straight 30-point game, a school record.

“It’s good to score 30 points, but I’m not doing it alone,” she said. “I have the help of my teammates and my coaches. Scoring doesn’t really mean nothing. If we need it, I’ll do it but I’m mostly focused on defense.”

McDonald had four steals, as Arizona (13-2, 3-1 Pac-12) forced 18 turnovers and held the Bears to 38 percent shooting, including a dismal 5-of-22 mark from 3.

“We accomplished all the goals that we set out (defensively),” said UA coach Adia Barnes, citing Cal’s shooting percentages. “Our players have fought, our players have showed grit and character and passion, and they’ve done everything I’ve asked. Looking into their eyes, they were determined and knew we could win.”

Anigwe banged inside for 19 points and 20 rebounds, but Barnes was pleased with the way her team defended Cal’s superstar forward.

“She’s that good,” said Barnes, well aware of Anigwe’s stat-line. “We had three bodies around her. She’s so athletic. They’re throwing lobs and she just jumps up and gets them. I thought in the beginning of the first half, we did not do a good job of walling up. We were kind of leaning over getting fouls, but I thought we made her work.”

Dominique McBryde was given the seemingly impossible task of defending Anigwe, though Cate Reese, Semaj Smith and, well, just about everyone else on Arizona’s roster chipped in.

“It’s a bit of a handful (to guard Anigwe), but it was a team effort,” McBryde said. “It wasn’t just me. We had guards digging in on her to get steals. I can’t just take the credit on my own.”

McBryde also scored some of the game’s most critical points when she converted an and-one to extend UA’s lead to 53-49 with 4:19 left in the fourth right after Anigwe had drained a mid-range jumper to make it a one-point game.

“That bucket was needed,” said McDonald, who then went on to score UA’s final seven points at the free-throw line.

Arizona led 19-13 at the end of the first quarter and extended its lead to 33-19 in the second. Points were hard to come by after that. The Wildcats only shot 18 percent in the second half and Cal broke off a 12-0 run to cut UA’s lead to 38-36 in the third quarter.

McDonald, admittedly fatigued, saved the day.

The sophomore sank her fourth 3 of the night to make it a five-point game heading into the final quarter, then scored Arizona’s first nine points of the fourth to help the Wildcats ward off the Bears.

Reese (10) was the only other Wildcat to score in double figures.

“That’s not exactly what I want,” Barnes said of McDonald having to carry the load once again, “but she’s incredible. She’s been incredible.”

Anigwe made an acrobatic layup over two Wildcats to tie it up in the final minute, but McDonald answered, forcing her way into the lane, drawing a foul, and making both free throws to put UA up 55-53 with 59.8 seconds left.

Arizona led the rest of the night.

“Everybody has five people in the paint when she drives and she still finds a way,” Barnes said.

What Barnes was most proud of is how the Wildcats bounced back from a lifeless 16-point loss at Utah, which snapped their 11-game winning streak. She put her team through the ringer in the practices leading up to Friday’s game to challenge her players.

They responded.

“We were going at each other’s heads (in practice) and that loss definitely woke us up,” McDonald said. “Going into the game, it definitely paid off. We worked our butts off.”

Arizona will search for its third win over a ranked team Sunday when it hosts No. 6 Stanford.

Recent history suggests the Wildcats are a long shot. They have only beaten the Cardinal once since 2005.

Recent history is also meaningless, which the Wildcats are proving one win over a ranked team at a time.

“It’s pretty hard to play us at home and we’re a team you’re not just going to overlook,” Barnes said. “For the last decade, Arizona has been a team that you want to play twice and you know you’re going to be beat. And that’s why I’m here. I’m here to bring this program where it used to be. Is it going to take time? Yes, it’s a process. But I’m not here to finish 10th, 11th or 12th. I’m not here to not have us in the conversation. I’m here to bring us (back).”

Postgame interviews

Here’s Adia Barnes after Arizona Women's Basketball’s win over No. 24 Cal

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, January 11, 2019

Dominique McBryde and Aari McDonald discuss Arizona Women's Basketball’s win over No. 24 Cal

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, January 11, 2019