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Arizona freshman Cate Reese adjusting to life in the Pac-12: ‘It’s a notch up’

Reese has had her fair share of ups and downs in conference play. It’s all part of the process.

arizona-wildcats-women-basketball-usc-trojans-pac-12-tournament-recap-highlights Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

When you lose two games by a combined 55 points the way the Arizona Wildcats did in Oregon last weekend, there aren’t many positives to take away from it.

Cate Reese was an exception.

The high-energy forward was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after averaging 17 points, five rebounds, and two steals on 58 percent shooting against two of the top frontcourts in the country.

“She played really well, she wasn’t intimidated,” said UA coach Adia Barnes, whose upstart team dropped to 13-5 overall and 3-4 in the Pac-12 heading into this weekend’s homestand against USC and UCLA.

Reese had only been averaging 4.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in conference play, so that road trip was a breakout weekend for the McDonald’s All-American.

Or, as she put it, a return to normalcy.

“I just felt like I hadn’t been playing like myself in Pac-12 (play), so it just feels good,” Reese said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the wins, but I think I have become more comfortable playing in the Pac-12, against players that are really good. I just think that has boosted my confidence.”

Reese averaged 30.6 points and 15.3 rebounds as a senior at Cypress Woods High School in Texas, but is learning that the college game isn’t so easy. Like most freshmen, Reese has had her fair share of ups and downs.

For one thing, Reese’s role is different.

She was the primary scoring option in high school and AAU, often handling the ball and initiating offense. At Arizona she plays off the ball, serving as a secondary option to star point guard Aari McDonald, who does most of the scoring and ball-handling. Oftentimes offensive rebounding is Reese’s lone source of offense.

And while the Wildcats like to get out in transition, it doesn’t compare to the free-flowing systems Reese ran at the previous level.

“It’s different to actually be in a play,” she said. “In AAU and high school we never ran a play, so that’s definitely a big adjustment for me — following the play and setting the screens correctly.”

Reese initially had trouble picking up the playbook, but it comes more naturally to her now, thanks to veterans like Dominique McBryde, assistant coaches like Morgan Valley, and some diligent study sessions.

“They gave us iPads that we use for film and plays and everything,” Reese said. “It’s basically just like another class.”

If Reese had to grade herself in Basketball 101, she would give herself an A-minus. Barnes, knowing how common it is for freshmen to be behind the curve, thinks Reese is an A-student. No minus.

“She’s a smart cookie,” Barnes said. “I love coaching her because she’s a competitor, wants to be good, she’s hard on herself. Those are the kind of kids I want to coach because she cares and it matters to her.

“The first month all the upperclassmen were like, ‘Come on, Cate and Semaj (Smith)’ and now they’re fine. ... It’s a freshman thing.”

Another lesson Barnes is trying to impart on Reese is that scoring isn’t everything. That there are other ways to help the team when your shots aren’t falling. Reese’s father has had a similar message, always telling her to rebound and run the floor.

“I told her even if you have an off night and you’re 0 for 8, if you’re setting great screens, being a communicator, being a great teammate, you’re also valuable in different ways,” Barnes said. “You don’t understand that as a freshman.”

Freshmen also don’t understand how challenging it is to be successful in the Pac-12 until the league humbles them. In the last two weeks alone, Reese has had to battle with Stanford’s Alanna Smith, Cal’s Kristine Anigwe and Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard, three of the nation’s top post players.

Smith had 20 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks against Arizona. Anigwe had 19 points and 20 boards. Hebard had 14 and 11.

“They’re all big, tall, strong, and fast,” Reese said.

Smart, too. Use the same post-move twice and they will swat your shot. Let them box you out under the rim and the points and rebounds will pile up.

“It’s a notch up,” Barnes said. “I think it’s also learning that each game is a battle. It’s not like we have an easy game or a game we should win where you’re going to get 20 points, just because. You have to work for everything and you have to work in different ways and smarter. When you see what it is like to play against them, I think you’re more motivated to work. Hopefully that brings that for her.”

Reese has struggled more often than not in conference play, but the Oregon series was a glimpse into a bright future.

You see, Reese is only scratching the surface of what she can become. Her 3-point stroke will get smoother, her off-hand will become more reliable, Barnes says. And once she matures physically, she will be better equipped to rebound and defend on the low block.

One day, Barnes reckons Reese will be the veteran post player that gets to feast on wide-eyed freshmen. Until then, she has to pay her dues.

“I think she’ll break a lot of records,” Barnes said. “I think she has a great chance of being Freshman of the Year, which is a big accomplishment. I think she needs to continue to evolve and get better. There are lot of parts of her game that she needs to improve on, but the thing is she wants to get better. I think you’re going to see a more versatile player in a couple years.”