TEMPE — The last time the No. 18 Arizona Wildcats beat the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe, head coach Adia Barnes had only just hung up her Arizona jersey a few short years before. Star guard Aari McDonald was just two years old. On Sunday afternoon, the team put an end to that run, winning their first road game against ASU since February, 2000.
The Wildcats were led by McDonald and Cate Reese, but foul trouble meant they had to find a way to win with McDonald on the bench for extended periods. They did it.
What did we learn?
The Wildcats are a team
McDonald picked up her second foul in the first quarter. When she went to the bench with 3:51 to go in the opening frame, her team trailed by five. Last year, that might have meant the opponent was able to go on a run. Not on Sunday.
“We did this all without starters,” Barnes said. “I mean, Dominique (McBryde) plays 35 minutes game. So, how everybody stepped up in different ways. That’s what a team does.”
The Wildcats chipped away, tying it up at the 9:13 mark in the second quarter. Just over a minute later, freshman Helena Pueyo gave them their first lead with a 3-pointer.
The addition of players like Pueyo to a team that already had a strong group of older players stood out to ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne.
“They’ve got a core group back,” Turner Thorne said. “Very experienced, which I think is the difference between us... they just know who they are really well. I think they’ve just built on that, I think is the biggest thing, but I do think that they’ve added some players, as have we and other teams, that are really doing well.”
That core group was without the injured McBryde. McDonald played 29 minutes, far below her average last season. After she fouled out with 1:25 left in the game, it was up to Sam Thomas, Lucia Alonso, Reese, Amari Carter and Pueyo to bring home the victory.
Thomas took the fouls from ASU as they tried to extend the game. She calmly stepped to the line and sank four of six. She also had a block and key rebounds in the final minutes.
Alonso helped control the game and corralled a big board of her own. Reese was huge, getting her ninth and tenth rebounds to secure the double-double after McDonald went out for the last time.
Carter was a pest on defense. Pueyo kept her composure despite her youth.
“This team feels like they can beat anybody,” Barnes said. “And I love that. And there were times when, in the last year, we would have folded...this year we calmed down. Then we made some big shots, had some big defensive stops.”
Arizona won the defensive battle
The Sun Devils are known as a defensive team, but the Wildcats have had better numbers this season. Neither team played a particularly tough schedule, so it was difficult to know how that would translate to Pac-12 play. For Arizona, it translated just fine.
ASU expected them to go for a lot of steals. Arizona didn’t do that. They had just three all game compared to eight for the Sun Devils. What they did instead was hold ASU to a very subpar shooting day.
The Sun Devils shot just 30.3 percent from the field. They were even worse from distance, connecting on just 11.1 percent.
It wasn’t just the defense, of course. ASU missed some open shots and hit only 57.9 percent of their free throws, as well, but the game plan worked once Arizona found a way to get around the Sun Devils’ screens.
The Wildcats can win a physical game
On Friday, Barnes and her players said that they expected a difficult, physical, defensive-oriented game. They got that and some.
“It was so brutal,” McDonald said. “It was physical everywhere. Like every play, it was getting physical and chippy a lot. Which, you know, my team didn’t back down and I was proud of that. No one’s gonna bully us. I don’t care if it’s the home court advantage or anything, but we just stood our ground. We played physical, we played together, great team defense, and I couldn’t be more happy.”
Helena Pueyo is a big deal
When a team brings in international players, the fans have to just trust the coaches. There won’t be a lot of media hype, because the players are largely unknown in the U.S. The class won’t get ranked, because the big services either don’t rank them or do so in a very haphazard manner.
Pueyo showed on Sunday why the Arizona staff was so high on their smooth-shooting Spanish guard. She played 32 minutes in the biggest game of the year. While she only had six points, she led the team with five assists and added five rebounds, a block and a steal. Most importantly, she kept her head when her team lost McDonald to fouls.
The big games Pueyo has played for the Spanish national team paid off for the Wildcats. She has played for and won medals. She isn’t afraid. On Sunday, she showed that she can do it in the Pac-12, too.
Feeling fine about that schedule
Barnes says she just rolls her eyes when people criticize the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule. After Sunday, she certainly had the right. Her players felt some vindication, too.
“Everyone has been saying that our non-conference is easy,” Reese said. “It’s not hard. We don’t play strong teams. And then we come out here and we play a team that, you know, they think they were supposed to beat us. So, it just shows that even though maybe our non-conference wasn’t that difficult, we were still up there, and I think it just shows that we have so much more potential for the rest of the season. It’s just a good road win.”