Sam Thomas was plucking specks of glitter from her hair as she stepped to the podium to field postgame questions.
They were remnants of a locker room celebration.
Aari McDonald scored 21 points as No. 18 Arizona completed an unbeaten non-conference season Saturday with a 61-42 win over UC Santa Barbara in McKale Center in front of 4,498.
It’s the first time the Wildcats (11-0) have gone undefeated in non-conference play since 1995-96, head coach Adia Barnes’ sophomore season.
Dating back to last season, Arizona has won a school-record 17 straight games, the longest active streak in the country.
“It means a tremendous amount to me for where this program was three years ago and where it is now and where we’re moving to,” Barnes said. “We’re no longer in a rebuilding stage. We’re now in a (mindset) of, ‘how are you going to get to the top 10 or to a Final Four?’ The bar is set higher, but now we have another test. We go to ASU, we’re playing some really good teams off the bat, so I’m hoping this gives us momentum and just ignites us and makes us excited.”
Arizona’s 11 wins have come by an average of 30.2 points, but Saturday’s victory wasn’t as easy as some of the others. The Wildcats got off to a slow start, perhaps looking ahead to the upcoming holiday break.
Thanks to five early 3s and some crisp ball movement, the Gauchos led 23-19 midway through the second quarter.
Arizona’s defense returned to its usual stout self from there. UCSB (4-8) went scoreless the rest of the period and coughed up the ball five times in the last five minutes of the half, allowing the Wildcats to storm back.
“I don’t think we went on vacation mode in the first half, I just think that we haven’t played in a week so that kinda caught up to us,” McDonald said. “We were fatigued. We looked gassed during the game, but I think that we settled in the second half, or even the last five minutes of the first quarter we settled in and it started with our defense.”
McDonald swished a pair of free throws to tie the game at 23-all with 3:07 left in the half, then drew a foul in transition that resulted in two more free throws to give the Wildcats the lead.
It only grew from there.
Thomas intercepted a pass in front of the Arizona bench and kicked it ahead to Helena Pueyo, who one-touched a pass underneath to Cate Reese. Her layup put the Wildcats ahead 29-23 at the break.
McDonald, who also had seven rebounds and seven assists, was Arizona’s lone source of offense early on, dropping 15 points in the first half. The redshirt junior extended Arizona’s lead to 42-29, its largest at the time, when she drove for a layup with 2:20 left in the third.
Thomas laid in Reese’s miss at the buzzer to put UA ahead 46-32 heading into the fourth.
Thomas finished with 11 points and three steals. She buried a 3 from the top of the arc to put Arizona up 58-40 with three minutes to play.
The Wildcats didn’t shoot the ball well as a team but only committed four turnovers. Meanwhile, they forced 17 and held UCSB to 36 percent shooting and 19 points in the second half.
“We started off really bad defensively, we were not communicating, we were in rotation every single time, which is not really how we’ve been starting games,” Barnes said. “And I think we’ve had a really long break...so we’re very rusty, but I thought the end of the second quarter gave us momentum and then going into the second half we were much better defensively. ... They were trying to really just pound the ball and put the ball on the floor, so we did a better job of popping back and being smart and not fouling.”
Sophomore center Semaj Smith was Arizona’s official player of the game after finishing with nine points, six rebounds, two blocks and a steal on 4-of-5 shooting, including a rare 3-pointer off an assist from McDonald, who mistakenly thought Smith was a different teammate.
Oh, well. Smith fired without hesitation, another sign of her heightened confidence.
“When she first started (here), she had a tough time catching the ball, had a tough time, keeping position, holding position, always went to her fadeaway jumper,” Barnes said. “Now she goes into it sometimes but not nearly as much. She’s playing stronger. She’s turning, keeping the ball high, finishing better. She’s rebounding a lot better. Her hands are better. That’s confidence, but we work every day and she’s just improved. And I think she’s gonna continue to get better and better.”
Arizona has only played one major-conference team so far (Texas) but its schedule will strengthen considerably from here on out due to the competitive nature of the Pac-12, which features five ranked teams, four of which reside in the Top 10.
The Wildcats open Pac-12 play next Sunday at ASU before road games at USC and No. 10 UCLA and a homestand vs. No. 4 Oregon State and No. 3 Oregon.
Riding high with confidence from a dominant non-conference season, Arizona is looking forward to the challenge.
“Our first Pac-12 game we get ASU, our freshmen are going to understand the rivalry,” Thomas said. “So it should be really exciting, a true test.”
Added McDonald: “I’ve been waiting for this. I know that my team can compete with any team in this conference. And I’m excited to show what we can do.”
Arizona fans have bought in
The Wildcats averaged 1,718 fans at their non-conference games last season. This year, they brought in 4,650, giving them one of the best homecourt advantages in the country.
“The year I sat out (2017-18), there were like 40, 50 people here, now it’s like ‘wow,’” McDonald said. “You guys are really supporting us. It means a lot. And even when we were down, you can just hear the fans making noise. That helped us. We fed off that and we got steals defensively, so we appreciate the support.”
The Wildcats have won 13 straight in McKale Center.
“People don’t want to come to Tucson to play and I love that because they’re our sixth man,” Barnes said. “And I think we’re really gonna have 10,000 people some games and I think it’s going to be a hard environment to play. And so if we can take care of home court and then steal a couple wins that we shouldn’t on the road, I think we’re sitting in a really good situation trying to make the (NCAA) Tournament.”
Freshman post Birna Benonysdottir (concussion), senior guard Tee Tee Starks (shoulder), and senior forward Dominique McBryde (ankle) all missed Saturday’s game with injuries.
McBryde has missed the last three games but Barnes is hoping she can return for the Pac-12 opener. McBryde was donning a walking boot Saturday but is no longer using a scooter to get around. Starks has not played all year and isn’t expected back soon, Barnes said.
Freshman post Sevval Gül (concussion) returned from a three-game absence and had two points and two rebounds in six minutes. Barnes said it was important to get her back in the mix in a pressure situation.
“This is another reason why I’m proud we’re 11-0—because we’ve had a lot of injuries,” Barnes said. “A couple games we had four people out and we’re missing a starter and still able to win. Dominique is extremely valuable to what we do. We are a much different team without Dominique. She’s our best post defender and one of our best listeners.”
Sam Thomas (11 points) and Aari McDonald (21 points) discuss @ArizonaWBB’s 61-42 win over UC Santa Barbara.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) December 21, 2019
Thomas is covered in glitter because the Wildcats had a party in the locker room to celebrate going 11-0 in non-conference play. pic.twitter.com/WPiaGdJqdU