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Arizona searching for scorers to help Aari McDonald

Photo by Simon Asher

The book is out on how to slow down the Arizona women’s basketball team. Divert all your attention to star point guard Aari McDonald and make her teammates beat you.

It is much easier said than done — McDonald is the nation’s third-leading scorer — but Stanford executed that plan to perfection Sunday when it stomped the UA by 30.

The Cardinal held McDonald to 17 points on 22 shots, swarming her with players of all sizes and cutting off her drives, while her teammates were unable to make Stanford pay for collapsing the paint.

The non-McDonald Wildcats combined for 31 points on 27.5 percent shooting. McDonald was the only player to score in double figures and none of her passes led to baskets.

Arizona coach Adia Barnes expects No. 10 Oregon State to have a similar game plan Friday in Corvallis.

“There’s gonna be five people in the paint,” she said.

That is, unless somebody steps up and helps McDonald, who Barnes has called a pass-first point guard, carry the scoring load.

“It’s really important,” Barnes said of finding secondary options. “I think right now we don’t rely on Aari, I think that we just sometimes stand and watch her. Not because it’s intentional, but because she’s really fast, you don’t want to get in her way, you don’t know how to move. So we’re working on that as a team. Aari is not the player that wants to (shoot that much). She just does it by default, trying to find a way to help her team. That’s the competitor she is.”

Barnes believes Arizona has players capable of being that reliable second or third option, but also thinks they are lacking confidence right now.

The numbers back that up. Arizona’s other four starters have been struggling against Pac-12 competition.

Sophomore Sam Thomas is Arizona’s second-leading scorer in conference play at 9.6 PPG, but is just 4 for 17 from 3. Freshman Cate Reese, who averaged over 14 points per game in non-conference, is only mustering 4.8 points per game against Pac-12 foes, still getting accustomed to the size and speed of the conference.

Junior Lucia Alonso is shooting well from 3 (38.9%) in conference play, but has only hoisted 18 triples in 167 minutes. Purdue transfer Dominique McBryde is averaging 6.2 points on 39 percent shooting in her first five games against the Pac-12.

Meanwhile, McDonald has logged the second-highest usage rate (40.4) in the country, a number that has only gone up in conference play.

“Sam Thomas is a really good player with a really good 3-point shot. She’s got to believe that because I believe it,” Barnes said. “And then Cate has the ability to get some rebounds, to finish. I don’t care about the Stanford game (in which Reese went 1 for 9), that happens, that will happen. But then we do a little more, set better screens, different intangible things. Dominique is solid, but I feel like Dominique could even give a little more. So I believe they all can do it. Now they got to believe it. If they don’t, I have to find a way to help them get confidence.”

To help instill that belief, Barnes is having her players shoot “a couple hundred” jumpers in practice each day.

“The bottom line is they all have the ability to do it, now we just have to do it,” she said.

The defensive-minded Wildcats have somewhat been able to survive on the Aari-or-nothing offense in conference play so far, beginning league play with a 3-2 record including two wins over Top-25 teams, but Barnes has warned that it’s not a recipe for sustained success.

By putting all of their eggs in McDonald’s basket, it leaves Arizona vulnerable to serious scoring droughts any time she has an off game or needs a breather.

The Stanford game was proof of that, as was the Utah game the Sunday prior when McDonald scored 34 of Arizona’s 64 points, but needed 30 shots to do it. The Wildcats lost to the Utes by 16 and trailed by as many as 30.

“We all have to step up for Aari because (teams) all scout, they all know Aari is our main scorer,” Reese said. “It’s important that we can step up and be there for her when they double team her, or whenever she drives to be ready to shoot.”