The Arizona Wildcats’ offense was a mixed bag early in the season.
On one hand, it had one of the nation’s leading scorers in Aari McDonald, who has already exceeded Adia Barnes’ scoring records by putting up 30 or more points in six games, and became the first player in program history to score 15 or more points in the first 19 games of a season.
And, yet, it wasn’t sustainable in Barnes’ eyes. McDonald was regularly scoring almost half her team’s total points. It became obvious that this wasn’t a recipe for longterm success when Stanford came to town and swarmed her, daring the other Wildcats to make shots.
They didn’t, and they lost by 30.
Over the last three weeks, though, Arizona has finally taken strides in providing their star point guard with real support. Not only has it had a positive effect on the stat sheet, but it’s had a positive effect on McDonald.
“It takes a lot off weight off my shoulders,” McDonald said. “Just to know that when I kick out to a teammate, they’re contributing and they’re finishing. That feels pretty good. Just got to keep that up.”
It’s also highlighted McDonald’s true capabilities as a point guard. While Barnes has always called her a pass-first point guard, that wasn’t apparent for most of the season. McDonald’s season-high for assists was 9 against UTEP and she averages 3.7 per game, but there were many games where she was only getting two or three.
Not that McDonald wasn’t passing the ball. Too often, her teammates just weren’t taking or hitting shots when she did. Over the weekend, they finally did, and McDonald averaged 7.5 assist over the homestand.
So, how did it happen?
Cate Reese re-emerges as a scoring threat
The road trip to Oregon didn’t have many positives. One of the few was the re-emergence of highly-touted freshman Cate Reese as a scoring threat.
Reese had performed well in the non-conference portion of the season, putting up double-digit points in seven of the team’s 11 games. She was nearly averaging a double-double (14.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg) by the time the Wildcats put the finishing touches on their win against Northern Arizona on Dec. 21.
But that was against questionable competition. Arizona had the worst strength of schedule in the Pac-12. They didn’t play a single major-conference opponent.
When the conference season rolled around, Reese struggled to score. Part of it was dealing with foul trouble far too often. Before the Oregon trip, Barnes said that they were working with Reese on both her footwork and putting herself in better situations.
Through the first three Pac-12 games, she scored 8 points in total. Barnes was still happy with the other things she was doing—and she was just one of Arizona’s players who wasn’t really scoring—but the Wildcats would eventually need points from one of their most talented players.
When California came to town for the fourth game of conference play, it appeared that Reese was finally putting things together. She had her first double-digit scoring game in Pac-12 play despite facing an interior player of Kristine Anigwe’s caliber.
Things really clicked two games later, when the Wildcats took on Oregon State. Reese put up 18 points. Two days later against Oregon, she had 16. On Jan. 25, it was 17 against USC. Then, came UCLA and 10 points for Reese in regulation and another 4 in the three overtime periods.
The rest of the team climbs on board
Two scorers in double digits is all well and good, but Barnes has repeatedly told the media that Arizona has the talent for four players to score in double figures every game. Against USC and UCLA, that finally came to pass.
Against the Women of Troy, point production came from three of the regular starters and a player who’s usually a reserve. Having McDonald score 20 again was just what Wildcat fans expect now, but Arizona found points from other places that no one really anticipated.
Tee Tee Starks, starting for an injured Lucia Alonso, was the most unexpected. The defensive stopper scored 13 points while going 4-for-4 from outside. With Reese having her third straight game scoring in double digits, Dominique McBryde’s double-double rounded out the quartet. It might have been the first time all season that Arizona really looked like a complete team.
Of course, there’s always a chance that such a performance is an aberration, but the Wildcats backed it up in the next game. Despite losing to UCLA, the offense wasn’t stagnant against the Bruins as it often was earlier in the season. Arizona didn’t stand around and watch McDonald. Perhaps most importantly, this time the points came from veterans.
Alonso came into the UCLA game averaging 5.7 ppg for the season. In conference play, that number was just 4.25 ppg. For a player that Barnes regularly refers to as one of the team’s best shooters, her lack of scoring has left Arizona looking for points from elsewhere.
The junior guard showed why she’s so important to Arizona when she put up 14 points against UCLA—the most Alonso had scored in a conference game all season. Nine of those points came in regulation. Her three-pointers from the corner were critical to extending the game.
Sophomore forward Sam Thomas joined in. Thomas has steadily increased her scoring since Pac-12 play kicked in. After averaging 8.5 ppg in non-conference play, she has bumped that number up to 9 ppg. She took one more step against the Bruins, setting a season high with 17. Thirteen of those came in regulation.
Arizona doesn’t need the same two or three players to put up double digits every game. Adding any combination to the production of McDonald will make the Wildcats competitive against most of the league. The question is whether they can keep this going.
Next week, Arizona will go to Wells Fargo Arena to face the Sun Devils. Can they take this brand of team basketball on the road?