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Defense keying Arizona’s hot start: ‘Now we have an identity and people fear us’

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 30 Women’s Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona women’s basketball program lacked an identity when Adia Barnes was hired in 2016. Or if it did have one, it was that it was the doormat of the Pac-12.

Under previous coach Niya Butts, the Wildcats were consistently stomped by their Pac-12 counterparts, compiling a 24-110 conference record across eight long seasons.

Those struggles continued through Barnes’ first two years at the helm, as she was tasked with overhauling a program that lacked any sort of foundation. But it’s Year 3 of the rebuild now, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Arizona is 11-1, currently riding a 10-game winning streak heading into Friday’s road game against Colorado, tying the longest win streak in school history.

“Now we have an identity and people fear us,” Barnes said.

That identity? A press defense that puts opponents on edge for 40 minutes. The Wildcats rank No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (49.2 ppg), opponent field goal percentage (.326), opponent 3-point percentage (.263) and steals per game (10.3).

“Pressure the ball, guard your yard,” Barnes tells her team.

They listen.

“We’ve been working really hard on our defense in practice, we’re always going one-on-one and doing defensive drills, so that doesn’t really come as a shock to us or Coach Adia because she’s been emphasizing that,” freshman forward Cate Reese said of the defense’s early success.

The Wildcats felt they made a statement Sunday when they held the No. 17 Arizona State Sun Devils to 39 points on 22 percent shooting. Arizona won by 12 points and never trailed an ASU team that beat the Wildcats three times last season.

It was Arizona’s first victory over a ranked team since 2015-16 and the first time it won its conference opener since 2012-13. In other words, these aren’t the Wildcats of years past.

“I thought we would win, but to win like that was a good feeling,” Reese said. “It showed all our hard work that we’ve done this far. ... We still have so much more to do, and that we’re doing so well right now shows that at the end of the season we’ll be really good.”

Arizona ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in most major defensive categories last season when it staggered to a 6-24 record, but improvement was expected this season thanks to an inrush of talent.

Arizona added three high-end transfers in forward Dominique McBryde, point guard Aari McDonald and off-guard Tee Tee Starks, plus two highly-ranked freshman post players in Reese and Semaj Smith. It also returned forward Sam Thomas, an All-Pac-12 Freshman, and guard Lucia Alonso, a three-year starter.

It’s a group that is well-suited to play Barnes’ preferred uptempo brand of basketball.

“Last year we wanted to play fast, but we didn’t have the personnel,” she said. “But how do you play fast if you don’t play pressure defense? So I knew we had to change our defense in order to create offense.”

McDonald, in particular, has made that change easy. Not only is the fleet-footed guard the Pac-12’s leading scorer, she spearheads UA’s press defense by using her quickness and motor to hound opposing point guards the distance of the court, a role she loves more than scoring.

“I just like taking hearts away from people,” she said before the season. “I like to see them frustrated and take the ball from them.”

Which she does a lot. McDonald ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in steals.

“Her on-ball defense is amazing,” Thomas said after the win vs. ASU. “She’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. So it really helps when she’s denying the ball handlers and they get flustered, and then we have to deny our man. It just really helps break down their offense.”

McDonald embraces her job as Arizona’s catalyst and knows her effort rubs off on her teammates, but they love to get after it, too.

Thomas is tied with McDonald with 27 steals and ranks third in the Pac-12 in blocks. Meanwhile, Starks has been menacing on the perimeter, and Reese, Smith, and McBryde provide the interior size Arizona has been missing the last several years.

The Wildcats have posted the fourth-best block rate in the Pac-12, after being 10th in that category last season.

“I’ve never been on a team where so many people want to play defense,” McDonald said. “And I appreciate that, and I definitely think our defense will get us a lot of wins this year.”

There is another stat that reflects well on Arizona’s defense: Passion plays. You know, the key moments in a game that don’t always show up on the stat sheet.

Barnes thought Arizona dominated ASU in that category.

“Passion plays are 50-50 balls, they’re out-hustling someone on the floor, it’s a great screen to get your teammate open, it’s a great block-out to get your teammate a rebound,” she said. “All those things we value, and as a coach you know your players value what you value. So we talk about those things a lot, but they’re the ones that go out and do it.”

Arizona’s defense hasn’t been perfect — the Wildcats need to improve on the glass, Barnes said — but outside expectations seem to be shifting after their gritty win over ASU.

Despite being picked to finish 10th in the conference, one reporter asked Barnes Thursday if her team can contend for a Pac-12 championship this season. Barnes, who is usually realistic with her prognostications, couldn’t rule it out.

“I think it’s possible, but I don’t know how good we are yet,” she said. “We beat ASU, but we have a tough test this week. We’re going to Colorado and Utah, they’re both really good teams. Now if we go there and we do some really good things, then I kind of have more of an indication. But the league is so tough, every game is going to be really hard to win. But we have potential to win some games and we made a statement (against ASU).”

A statement that Arizona can not only hang with any team in the country but, thanks to its defense, can beat them, too.

“If we just bring the type of defense that we did against ASU, no matter how well we play on offense it’s just going to come down to who wants it more,” McBryde said.

In which case, you have to like the Wildcats’ chances as they continue to pursue their first winning season and postseason appearance since 2010-11.

“They’re just tenacious,” Barnes said. “They play with grit, they play with passion, and this is all them. We work on it, we put together a plan, but they play with heart and they want to be good.”