Tee Tee Starks is best known for her defense, but her shooting can be a weapon, too.
Making her first start of the season, the senior guard went 4 for 4 from 3 as the Arizona Wildcats beat the USC Trojans 71-68 on Friday to snap a three-game losing streak.
“She was the difference maker,” said UA coach Adia Barnes. “We always know what we’re getting from Tee Tee defensively. She’s a stopper. ... But she was phenomenal tonight. Not only because she made shots, she played great defense, she moved really well without the ball. She was just a monster.”
Filling in for the injured Lucia Alonso, Starks finished with a season-high 13 points, along with a season-high four assists and four rebounds. The Iowa State transfer got the word she was in the starting lineup from assistant coach April Phillips during pregame shootaround.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I was a little nervous,” Starks said. “I haven’t started in a basketball game in a while.”
Or play as many minutes as she did Friday, logging 36. Starks had only been averaging 20 per game entering the night and had recently been sidelined with a concussion.
“To go from 0 to 100” is hard, Barnes said. “I’m just really, really proud of her.”
The Wildcats (14-5, 4-4) trailed by as many as 10 in the first half, but used a big third quarter to grab the lead and never relented it.
Starks hit two 3s during UA’s red-hot third quarter. One tied it at 35 with 7:25 left and her final 3 gave UA a 45-40 lead only a couple minutes later. The Wildcats shot 62 percent in the period and when it finally ended, they surfaced with an eight-point lead.
Starks was sure her fourth 3 was off the mark, but on this night there was no such thing as an errant shot.
“We have the type of team where on any given night it can be anyone’s night,” Starks said. “It was a lot of our nights tonight.”
Indeed, it wasn’t just Starks who was feeling it. Arizona turned in an extremely balanced effort, something that has been a rarity this season.
Aari McDonald, as usual, led with 20 points and eight assists, while controlling the tempo. Cate Reese added 17 points, her third straight game scoring in double figures. Dominique McBryde finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Sam Thomas was praised by Barnes for her defense, tallying three steals and a block.
All together, the Wildcats shot 49 percent, held USC (11-7, 1-6) to 42 percent shooting, and finished with a 37-27 edge on the glass, their first time outrebounding a Pac-12 opponent this season.
“That’s the balance we need,” Barnes said.
Arizona came out hot, draining four 3s in the first quarter. Starks was responsible for two. Tied at 16 through one, USC began the second quarter on a 12-2 run to take a 28-18 lead, benefitting from UA’s 10 first-half turnovers.
But Arizona was able to trim the deficit 33-28 heading into the locker room, then came out fast and furious in the third quarter, outscoring the Trojans 25-12.
“When we were trading baskets with them, the whole mentality was ‘we’re not going to give up, we’re not going to let them control us,’’ McBryde said. “Everyone hitting big shots, especially Tee Tee, it brought some more energy and helped us win this game.”
Arizona pushed its lead to 13 after a 3 by Bryce Nixon and layup by Reese early in the fourth, but USC answered with an 8-0 run to get within five with 4:53 left. Two free throws by USC’s Minyon Moore made it 67-63 with 57 seconds left.
After McDonald split a pair of free throws, Moore sank two to cut UA’s lead to 68-65 with 27.6 seconds, then Mariya Moore buried a triple to make it 70-68 with 22.8 seconds left.
Starks made a free throw to extend the lead to three, then forced Mariya Moore into a bad shot that failed to graze the iron as the final seconds ticked away.
“We did a really good job keeping our composure, not letting the runs bother us, not feeling defeated when we dug a hole,” Barnes said. “At times I was telling them to calm down because we were rushing, and they did.”
The Wildcats knew they needed the win. They were coming off three straight blowout losses. (To be fair, they faced three top-10 teams in a row.)
“We had to bounce back and this was a team when knew we could beat, so we just had to prove it,” McBryde said. “Yes, they came back close, but we stuck together and we finished the game strong.”
Hear what Adia Barnes had to say about Arizona Women's Basketball’s win vs. USC and Tee Tee Starks’ big nightPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, January 25, 2019
Here’s Dominique McBryde and Tee Tee Starks after @ArizonaWBB’s win vs. USC.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 26, 2019
McBryde had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Starks made her first start and went 4 for 4 from 3. pic.twitter.com/PB3CAMkSn4
Arizona guard Tee Tee Starks on making her first start vs. USC: “I’m not going to lie to you, I was a little nervous. I haven’t started in a basketball game in a long time.” pic.twitter.com/w4SdKkF5Mu— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 26, 2019