TEMPE — Adia Barnes got exactly what she expected—a low-scoring defensive battle between two bitter rivals.
And it was her defense that continues to prevail.
No. 18 Arizona staved off Arizona State 58-53 on Sunday to open the Pac-12 season. The Wildcats, who entered with the No. 2 defense in the country, held the Sun Devils to 30 percent shooting, including a 22-percent mark in the second half, as they captured their first win in Tempe since 2000 and their 18th straight victory dating back to last season.
Arizona guard Aari McDonald, who scored 14 of her 20 points in the second half, had two band-aids on her neck as she interviewed after the game, concealing a pair of scratches. They were battle scars from a gruesome game.
“That was brutal. Every play was so physical,” she said. “It was getting chippy but my team didn’t back down and I’m proud of that. No one’s going to bully us. … We stood our ground. We played physical, we played together, good team defense. I couldn’t be more happy.”
Not only did Arizona (12-0) claim bragging rights over its in-state rival, it continued to prove it’s major threat in the Pac-12. Sunday’s win marked Arizona’s second over a major-conference team, the other coming against Texas in mid-November. Both were on the road.
“A lot of people thought we had a soft non-conference (schedule),” Barnes said. “We did ... but we had the games we needed to be successful and now we’ve gone on the road and beat Texas, we beat ASU. And to me ASU is a top-25 team and they were chosen above us in the Pac-12. So this is a huge win and we haven’t done it in 20 years. ... This game is like a championship game.”
And that’s why the Wildcats didn’t fold when ASU trimmed a nine-point lead to one with a minute to play. They would have last year at this point of the season, Barnes said, but they are used to these high-pressure situations by now.
Sam Thomas, who swished four free throws in the final 36 seconds and blocked a potential game-tying 3 with 25 seconds left to ice the game, likened Sunday’s win to the WNIT championship game last April.
“There’s so much pressure,” she said. “Every point, every turnover, everything matters, so it’s nice that we had that experience to calm down and gather ourselves.”
Unsung seniors Amari Carter and Lucia Alonso soothed the situation. Carter hit a pull-up jumper off a screen to extend Arizona’s lead to six with 6:08 left in the fourth, then drove for a layup to make it a nine-point advantage with 4:56 left.
Alonso checked in with 1:35 left in the fourth when McDonald fouled out, and wrestled away a rebound from a horde of Sun Devils with 14 seconds left to seal the game.
“I was like, ‘is Lucia in there?’,” Thomas laughed. “But that was so helpful. It was so great. It was a relief when she got it.”
The underclassmen stepped up, too. McDonald sat for a large portion of the first half due to foul trouble, but sophomore Cate Reese and freshman Helena Pueyo shouldered the scoring duties in her stead. They accounted for nine straight points to give the Wildcats a 15-12 lead early in the second quarter after turnovers and cold shooting caused them to get off to a slow start.
Reese finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Pueyo, playing in her first Pac-12 game, chipped in with six points and five assists.
“Aari told us before the game just do your thing, do your role, play your role, whatever that role is,” Reese said. “At the time I wasn’t making my shots and I was getting kind of nervous because then Aari goes out. And I just went back to what I normally do. I got offensive rebounds and my shot started to fall and it all started to flow together.”
Arizona led the entire second half, always pushing back when the Sun Devils appeared to be on the verge of making a run.
A perfect example: After getting knocked down in the key, Reese picked herself up and drifted out to the perimeter, where she caught a pinpoint pass from Pueyo and sank a 3 to put the Wildcats up 37-28 midway through the third, their largest lead of the game.
“I knew it was gonna be physical, I knew it was gonna be low scoring, they jumped on us right away, Aari had quick fouls, but I think that we did really good at fighting through all that,” Barnes said. “And we were tough.”
In a moment that summed up ASU’s day, Ja’Tavia Tapley had a breakaway after stealing the ball from Reese and knocking her to the floor near mid-court, but the ASU forward blew the uncontested layup. Reese scored underneath on UA’s next possession to extend the lead to 40-32.
The Wildcats held an eight-point lead heading into the fourth and maintained a two-possession lead until a free throw and layup by Iris Mbulito made it 54-53 with 1:06 left.
Those were ASU’s final points of the day.
“We proved that our record is legit,” McDonald said. “People probably come to the game like ‘they haven’t really played anybody,” but we proved that we’re good and we have threats all around the court. I’m just proud of my teammates.”
- Dominique McBryde (ankle), Tee Tee Starks (shoulder), and Birna Benonysdottir (concussion) all sat out for the Wildcats.
Here’s Adia Barnes after Arizona’s win at ASU. Excuse her son for interrupting the interviewPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Sunday, December 29, 2019
Aari McDonald (20 points)
Here’s Aari McDonald after Arizona’s road win over ASUPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Sunday, December 29, 2019
Cate Reese (17 points, 10 rebounds)
Here’s Cate Reese after Arizona Women's Basketball’s road win over ASUPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Sunday, December 29, 2019
Sam Thomas (7 points, clutch free throws)
Here’s Sam Thomas after Arizona’s win at ASU. She hit clutch free throws at the end.Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Sunday, December 29, 2019