Many of the storylines are ones that show both the growth of the program and what the team still needs to do to get where they want to be.
What the stat sheets can’t tell you
From a glance at the stat sheet, it may not be obvious why the absence of senior forward Dominique McBryde is such a big deal. In her two years at Arizona, she has only scored in double digits 11 times in 44 appearances. She averaged 7.1 points and 4.8 rebounds while starting 35 games and appearing in 36 last season, but her value is much bigger than her points.
“(We) miss her tremendously,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “There’s so many things that you don’t understand until you’re coaching her. There’s so many things that she does that don’t show up on a stat sheet That’s telling freshman where to go. That’s setting a good screen. That’s making the right decision with the ball. I guarantee we don’t take as many quick shots today if she was running in the offense, because she’s gonna find the right shot. We took a lot of forced shots that were not good shots the first half. With her we don’t take a lot of those shots. And she’s able to drive to the basket and kick. She gets us more into the drive and kick, so we really miss her. She spreads the floor, shoots the three, she’s a great defender. We’re a different team without her.”
Looking to the future
With their early season injuries, Adia Barnes has been getting plenty of playing time for some of her younger players. She has also been able to see new combinations. One of those combinations may give a glimpse into the future.
WithMcBryde sitting out with an injury until Pac-12 play, the starting frontcourt has consisted of sophomores Cate Reese and Semaj Smith. It’s old hat for Reese, who has been a starter since she stepped foot on campus. For Smith, it’s something new.
The two are also getting used to playing together at all. In the past, Barnes has always paired them with another upperclassmen. Last year, she usually played Reese with McBryde and Smith with former Wildcat Destiny Graham. Now, it’s just the two underclassmen.
“Having Dominique out and having Sevval (Gül) out, we’ve been having to work with each other more,” Reese said. “So I think it’s just helped with our chemistry even more because...last year, a lot of times, we were not in together—for a reason, I guess. So it’s just nice to be able to build that chemistry, because it’s going to be important because Dominique, this is her last year. So, it’s gonna be important for Semaj and I to be able to work together, especially looking forward into the future next season.”
It’s gotten to the point where a night when Aari McDonald puts up her second double-double of the season can still be described as an off night for the Wildcats’ star guard. McDonald had a poor shooting night and seven turnovers, but she still found ways to help her team: getting fouled, getting steals and sharing the game high in assists (4) with teammate Lucia Alonso. Even when McDonald had difficulty scoring in the first half, she was still rebounding the ball well.
“Last year, we wouldn’t win if Aari wasn’t getting her 20-25 points,” Barnes said. “This year we can. Because really the last couple of games, they haven’t been the best games for Aari. It’s funny how we say, ‘Oh, these aren’t great games for Aari.’ She still has 17 (points) and 12 (rebounds). It’s a pretty darn good game, but it’s not her game. I mean, she was 4 for 12, probably three or four those shots, like around the rim, she usually makes. See, we’re a little bit tired. She was getting fouled a lot, kind of getting bumped, she was on the floor three times in the first quarter. So I think that kind of got her frustrated. Then she’s been in foul trouble, so then she can’t play as aggressively. So I think she normally plays better and she never has seven turnovers.”
Those heightened expectations come with the territory when rebuilding a program back to where it once was—or even taking it to a point beyond that. Coming out of high school as a McDonald’s All-American, Reese had her choices of places to go. Why choose Arizona, which had one winning season in over a decade?
Since stepping on campus, Reese has said that she came to Arizona because she was excited about building something and leaving her mark. That’s something she has in common with her coach, who regularly speaks of her love for the climb.
When Arizona got its tenth straight win to open a season for the first time in program history, every member of the team got some reinforcement that she had made the right decision. She and her teammates all had to take a leap of faith to join the program before Barnes had anything to show them in the way of proof, and now it was paying off.
“We talk a lot about leaving a legacy,” Barnes said. “And these are the things and this is how you do it. And I also reminded them we were 9-0 two times when I was here in college, never 10-0. But it shows that their hard work, and what they’re aspiring to do, and they want to leave their legacy. They’re starting to do that.”
The Wildcats will get their chance to go 11-0 when they face UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 21. That will be their final game before conference season kicks off on Dec. 29 with a visit to Arizona State. For now, Barnes just wants her players to keep their heads in the game rather than looking ahead.
“Santa Barbara is really good,” Barnes said. “Santa Barbara beat USC. So they are not a team you take lightly. And the scariest games that you can play are during finals or right before Christmas break, because everybody’s thinking about what time their flight’s leaving. That’s why I hate the games early. I prefer the games at seven at night because then they can’t leave till the next day.
“But I’m hoping that they’re mature enough this year to stay focused, stay ready, not think about I got to go to Phoenix for five o’clock fight or Tucson or whatever. So I think that we have to get better at some things. We have eight days in between games now. So we can improve, but there are some things we have to get better at before we play ASU.”