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Arizona women’s basketball needs confidence, more scorers vs. Oregon schools

The Wildcats go on the road to face two more top-10 teams

Aari McDonald helps Dominique McBryde to her feet
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats (13-3, 3-2 Pac-12) and No. 10 Oregon State Beavers (14-2, 4-0) women’s basketball teams had very different experiences last season. The severely understaffed Wildcats struggled to a 2-16 conference finish. Meanwhile, the Beavers rode the play of dominant center Marie Gulich to the Elite Eight before losing to Louisville.

They did have one thing in common, though: waiting for a highly-touted sophomore transfer to be eligible. By now, Arizona fans have heard of the spectacular play of point guard Aari McDonald. Except for the local diehard fans of women’s basketball, they probably haven’t heard much about Destiny Slocum, though.

Slocum was the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s 2017 Freshman of the Year as part of the Maryland Terrapins. Like McDonald, though, she decided to look for another landing spot after her first season. Although the Idaho native said she didn’t care about being closer to home, Slocum was looking for someplace where she would be more comfortable. Oregon State fit the bill.

The Beavers play seven guards an average of 161.5 minutes per game compared to Arizona’s four guards who average 77.6 minutes. In coach Scott Rueck’s guard-heavy line-up, Slocum still manages to average 5.8 assists per game—good for 21st in the country and fifth in the conference.

“The more point guards on the floor the better,” Rueck said at Pac-12 Media Day, noting that they would play four point guards significant minutes.

With the strong guard play, Rueck has created an offensive juggernaut in Corvallis. The Beavers average 81.4 points per game (11th in the country) while holding opponents to 58.1 (47th). They score at a rate of 115.3 points per 100 possessions.

Rueck has accomplished what Arizona coach Adia Barnes is trying to replicate in Tucson.

“Scott Rueck is a really good coach,” Barnes said. “And he’s done a phenomenal job in a really small city that hasn’t been good for a long time. He inherited a mess, and he’s just built it from day one. He always tells me it takes like six years, be patient. I did ask him and (Oregon head coach) Kelly Graves...about the process, and UCLA, too—Cori (Close).”

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Slocum won’t even be the most formidable guard they will face on this road trip. That will come in the form of All-American and 2018 Pac-12 Player of the Year Sabrina Ionescu when Arizona goes up against the No. 5 Oregon Ducks on Sunday.

The junior point guard dishes out more assists per game (8.5) than anyone in NCAA women’s basketball. She also averages 19.3 points per game, which puts her sixth in the conference. Like McDonald, Ionescu rebounds well for a guard, grabbing 7.7 boards per contest. The only Pac-12 guard who outrebounds Ionescu is Oregon State’s Mikayla Pivec. Ionescu is the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles.

Oregon is not a one-woman show, though. The Ducks get strong inside play from power forward Ruthy Hebard. Like Ionescu, Hebard is also a junior, but has already been showered with accolades. Last year, she won the Katrina McClain Award, which is given to the nation’s best power forward. She was also awarded honorable mention All-American status by both the WBCA and the Associated Press.

Hebard averages 17.3 points per game on 68.8 percent shooting. Her 1.23 points per play average is good for sixth in the nation. She’s third in the conference with 9.3 rebounds per game.

If Arizona wants to compete with two of the conference’s top teams, they need to figure out how to score when McDonald is contained. Barnes has talked about the need for consistency from additional scorers since the loss to Loyola Marymount in the second game of the year. The Wildcats are still working on that problem.

“I don’t think we rely on Aari,” Barnes said. “I think 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.”

Barnes believes that it all comes down to confidence, and she needs to help her players find that within themselves. If they don’t, it could get ugly in the state of Oregon.

“What we’re going to see is we’re going to see on Friday an exact replication of what we saw on Sunday,” she said. “There’s going to be five people in the paint. I mean, sometimes people cut through and they didn’t even see where their cutters went. They weren’t guarding, they were so worried about Aari. There were four people in the paint, then someone guarding Aari. If you’re a player, that’s exciting. They have to guard her, they’re going to double her, so I’m going to have open shots. So, it’s now confidence in those open shots.”

How to watch

Arizona faces Oregon State Friday at 8 p.m. MST. The game will be streamed via Oregon State Live Stream.

On Sunday, the Wildcats go up against the Ducks at 1 p.m. MST. That game will air live on the Pac-12 Networks.