Arizona coach Adia Barnes was curious to see how her team would fare in its biggest test of the season.
Pretty darn well, it turns out.
The Wildcats traveled to Austin where they obliterated the No. 22-ranked Texas Longhorns 83-58 on their homecourt. Barnes was surprised by the margin of victory and that Arizona led by 15 at the end of the first quarter and never let the game get close.
“They’re a really good team,” she said. “Like if you look, they’re way more athletic in almost every position besides Aari (McDonald)’s position. They’re bigger, stronger, with a little bit more experience in their front court.”
Thus, it was a statement win for the upstart Wildcats, who have followed up their WNIT championship by starting 4-0 with an average margin of victory of 25.5.
“It’s really important I think for just the momentum, the confidence, just kind of showing us where we’re at, and what we need to work on,” Barnes said.
Not unlike last year, the Wildcats leaned on McDonald. The redshirt junior poured in 44 of UA’s 83 points against Texas, setting a single-game scoring record. She did it in every way imaginable.
“She played a phenomenal game and no one had an answer,” Barnes said. “People tried different things and no one could adjust. I mean, she was scoring transition buckets on makes. She’s very hard to guard, she’s dynamic on both ends of the floor, she is one of the best guards in the country and I think she’s proving that.”
Defense has been Arizona’s calling card this season, and Barnes was impressed by the way her team was able to execute a complex game plan that, at its gist, challenged Texas to make 3s.
And while the Longhorns did convert 35 percent of them, UA forwards Cate Reese and Dominique McBryde were able to contain their talented frontcourt. Texas shot 39 percent and only outrebounded Arizona by four despite its size advantage.
If they can do that against Texas, Barnes said, it should bode well for them once they have to traverse the ultra-competitive Pac-12.
“[We] stuck to the game plan and they did it with pride, and I think that’s what made me feel good,” Barnes said. “We were able to make some adjustments we hadn’t done a whole lot. Like, we were playing the on-ball screens certain ways and they stuck with it and they executed it. And I was was happy to see that because it’s telling me that we’re mature enough and we’re smart enough to do a couple things really well.”
Barnes was certain the road win would earn Arizona a spot in the AP Top 25, but the Wildcats just missed the cut.
She doesn’t care. Actually, she likes being overlooked.
“I think it’s actually good because I think it doesn’t matter how you’re ranked in the beginning, it matters in the end,” Barnes said. “I think we are an oversight and I think that’s awesome. Because an oversight is going to come and punch some people in the mouth in the games. So I think that’s great, I think that having a chip is really good. I think there’s a lot more pressure when you’re up there because all you can do is go down. So I think it’s good, the climb. And just the fact that we went in there, we had a solid win, like a really defining win, and we still didn’t get respect, I think it makes us work harder, makes us more hungry, and I like that.”
Statement game for Aari too
McDonald knew in warmups that she was in for a big day in Austin.
“I kept telling my team that I’m in my bag, like I feel it. I just feel different,” she said. “And then after the first three shots, I was like ‘OK, I’m feeling it.’”
To say the least. McDonald finished a scorching 14 for 18 from the field, 14 for 14 from the free-throw line, and 2 for 5 from 3.
“Those are good guards and no one could guard Aari,” Barnes said. “So she proved when it counted and how she’s gonna step up and perform, that she’s one of the best guards in the country.”
McDonald had been struggling from the 3-point line and felt it was only a matter of time before her shots would start falling. She worked too hard on her jumper in the offseason for that not to be the case.
“I know coming into the second game (against Santa Clara), I was shooting horrible and I was a little frustrated,” she said. “Like man, like I’ve been shooting hundreds of shots, it’s frustrating they’re not going in. But I just kept a clear mind and was like, okay, someday they’re going to fall. And in the Texas game, everything was pretty much going in. So I was like, okay, like now I’m showing everyone what I can do.”
Barnes echoed that sentiment.
“It was a game she was due for,” she said. “I think it was a game that will give her a lot more confidence. Because she hadn’t been that consistent from the 3 and she was taking them in transition, step back. I mean, hard 3-point shots. So I think that game was really good for her mentally. And I think that now it’s my job to push her to be more hungry. Teaching her that only one percent of the people play pro...so be that one percent. That’s work ethic, that’s the hunger.
“And the best players I’ve been around score 44 points and then they’re the first people on the floor. That’s Lauren Jackson, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Katie Smith. That’s how they are because they want to score 50 the next time, and they want to win and beat the number one team country. So I think that’s what I expect from her and that’s who I’m pushing her to be.”
McDonald was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week and espnW National Player of the Week for her big week. (She also scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting against Chicago Sate earlier in the week.)
As for her team not receiving national recognition, McDonald plans to use it as motivation.
“Our team is not really concerned with the numbers, we’re just focused on ourselves and trying to get better,” she said. “But I mean, if we keep playing like this we’ll be ranked soon.”