The Arizona Wildcats withstood a strong challenge by the USC Women of Troy to pull off the 71-68 victory. Based on where the two teams were picked in the pre-season conference poll, this would be called an upset.
After all, Arizona was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12, while USC was tagged as the seventh-best team in the conference.
It hasn’t quite played out that way on the court. It was the Wildcats who came into the game with an overall record of 13-5 and 3-4 in the conference. USC entered having just won their first conference game of the season to stand at 1-5 in the Pac-12. Overall, though, they were still 11-6.
The hard-fought game made Arizona look every bit equal, if not superior, to USC. You can read our recap here, but let’s look at the win a little closer.
Tee Tee Starks can shoot!
The transfer from Iowa State has mostly been seen as a strong defender off the bench. Her highest-scoring game was 9 points against Montana. The Wildcats scored 100 in that game and she made one three-pointer.
On Friday, she had two before the first quarter was over.
“We always know what we’re getting from Tee Tee defensively,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “She’s a stopper, she’s catalyst for us on defense. When she comes in the game, things change. But she was phenomenal tonight, not only because she made shots. She played great defense: was intense, getting tips, getting steals, doing really good in the press, stopping the ball early. Cutting and making us move when we broke down to drive and kick stuff. Just a really good job. She moves well without the ball—one of our best movers without the ball. She’s one of our smartest players on defense. But tonight, she was just a monster all over.”
Starks took over as starting guard for Lucia Alonso, who was injured in the first quarter against Oregon last weekend. Barnes said that she didn’t want the injury to become a nagging one, so she was going to limit Alonso. Fortunately, Alonso only needed to play one minute because Starks had a career night.
Not only did Starks score a career-high 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting, including 4-for-4 from outside, she also played a career-high 35 minutes.
The reserve guard threw in four assists, four rebounds and a solo block for good measure. While she’s a great defensive spark off the bench, Starks’ willingness to let the shots fly lifted her team at crucial minutes over the course of the game.
“She was awesome tonight,” Barnes said. “She was a difference maker.”
The Wildcats can bounce back
Arizona hadn’t tasted victory since Jan. 11 against California. They were blown out from the beginning by Stanford and Oregon. They competed with Oregon State for a little while before falling by 22. How would they respond?
Very well, thank you.
“I think that it shows a lot of our character as a team that losing by 30 three games in a row, we just had to bounce back,” junior forward Dominique McBryde said. “We knew we could beat them, so we just had to prove it. Yes, they came back close, but we stuck together and we finished the game strong. So, I’m really proud of our team.”
Barnes knew that there would be parts of the conference season like the last three games, so her team needed confidence to be able to respond. Her strategy of gaining that confidence during the non-conference season seems to have paid off.
“I’m really proud because we just got stomped three games in a row,” Barnes said. “Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon. And it was not close. They blew us out. They’re much better than we are. They played much better, and exploited a lot of our weaknesses. And we made a lot of mistakes. So, to come back with this gritty game against a confident USC who just beat UCLA, it’s a good win for us.”
The Wildcats can weather the storm
The two teams fought to a 16-all tie in the first quarter, but a 15-8 run by USC to start the second had Arizona in a hole. The Women of Troy would build a 10-point lead before the Wildcats started to reel them back in.
When Arizona built their own double-digit lead, USC pulled off their own comeback.
“When we were just trading baskets back and forth with them, I think that the whole mentality was we’re not going to give up, we’re not going to let them just roll over us,” McBryde said.
The Wildcats proved that. They were able to withstand both of USC’s big runs to pull out the victory.
“We didn’t play 40 minutes of great basketball,” Barnes said. “But we were able to come back and fight when we were in the hole, and control the tempo when we needed to, and not get too rattled. They got rattled for a minute, but then they calmed down.”
Cate Reese is finding her way at a crucial time in the season
Through the first five games Pac-12 play, Cate Reese had a total of 24 points—and 10 of those came in the win over Cal. Until last week, that game against Cal was her only double-digit scoring game in conference play.
Since the Wildcats landed in Corvallis a week ago, she has put together three more. Reese is the current Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after averaging 17 ppg against Oregon and Oregon State. She hit that average exactly against USC, putting up 17 points while making six of her eleven shots. She also had six rebounds, an assist and a block.
Arizona is almost halfway through the conference season. Everyone has seen what McDonald can do. Having Reese step up when their schedule started to get tougher gives the Wildcats a real shot at adding to their list of upsets this season. Eventually, people might even have to stop calling them upsets.
You asked for a second scorer? How about a third and fourth?
The Wildcats have been struggling to find scoring from players not named “Aari McDonald” for most of the season. Barnes has said since early in the year that they had the talent for three or even four to score in double figures. They just haven’t been able to knock down the shots.
Against USC, McDonald once again led the team in scoring with 20. She wasn’t alone, though. Reese (17) and Starks (13) stepped up to be second and third double-digit scorers. McBryde was the fourth, putting up a double-double with her 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“I think we just played well as a team,” Starks said. “We just feed off each other’s energy.”