To commemorate the end of the decade, we will be compiling an all-decade (2010-19) team for each of the major Arizona programs. Next up: women’s basketball.
The decade started out with some promise. After struggling for five years under two coaches, Niya Butts finally had her first winning season as the Wildcats’ coach in 2010-11. Everyone hoped it was a turning point, but it proved to be a mirage.
Five years later, Butts was out and the biggest star in Arizona women’s basketball history was returning to her alma mater as its coach. There were no recruits. New coach Adia Barnes was able to convince Spanish guard Lucia Alonso to come to Arizona. She then set about a complete rebuild of the program, starting with the culture, then proceeding to upgrade the talent and install her own system.
Given the changes in the program over the last few years, there will definitely be a recency bias in this list. Newer fans of the women’s program may be a bit surprised to find out that there were some greats in the Butts era, though.
The program has been strong at the power forward position for years, making the all-decade team a bit unbalanced towards frontcourt players.
Let’s get to it.
Aari McDonald (2017-present)*
The only way to keep McDonald from scoring was to keep her on the bench. The Pac-12 was lucky that she had to sit out the 2017-18 season after transferring from Washington, because she has been devastating since she was allowed to take the court in an Arizona uniform.
In her first season, McDonald shattered the program’s single-season scoring record held by her coach. In 1998, Barnes scored 653 points in 30 games as a senior. Her redshirt sophomore protege had 890 in 37 games. McDonald’s 24.1 points per game were third in the nation, making her the top returning scorer for the 2019-20 season.
The result was honorable mention on the All-American lists of both the Associated Press and the WBCA. That honor was the first for a Wildcat since Davellyn Whyte. McDonald was named to both the All-Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Defense teams.
McDonald’s huge redshirt sophomore season meant that she ran past 1,000 points in her Arizona career early in her second year in Tucson. That put her firmly in the top 20 all-time despite having played just over 40 games.
She’s not just a scorer, either. Her 172 assists were the most by a Wildcat in a single season since Reshea Bristol in 2001. The mark placed her fourth on the program’s all-time list. McDonald’s 96 steals tied Bristol for the most in a season in program history, and she played more minutes than any Wildcat ever.
McDonald made every preseason list she was eligible for heading into her junior season, from preseason All-Pac-12 to the John R. Wooden Award watch list. While she isn’t scoring as much as she did last season, she doesn’t need to for this Wildcat team to succeed. She’s also playing far fewer minutes, which Barnes says should keep her fresher for the Pac-12 season.
*Includes redshirt year
Davellyn Whyte (2009-2013)
Whyte was part of the most successful team under Butts when the Wildcats finished 21-12 and went to the WNIT in the 2010-11 season. She’s also one of the program’s all-time greats. Along with Ify Ibekwe, Whyte is one of those greats who wore an Arizona uniform during the years that the program struggled and there wasn’t a lot of public support.
Despite the state of the program at the time, the Phoenix native was the 2010 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, a four-time member of the coaches’ All-Pac-12 team, and a three-time selection of the media. She was also an honorable mention selection of the 2012 AP All-American team.
Whyte led the team in scoring average in 2010, 2012 and 2013 and was the overall scoring leader all four years. She scored over 500 points in three of her four seasons, becoming just the second Wildcat to reach 2,000 points for her career. Her 2,059 points put her second on the all-time scoring list.
Whyte was just the fourth alumna of the Wildcat women’s team to have her name raised into the Ring of Honor in McKale Center, joining Barnes, Shawntinice Polk and Dee Dee Wheeler.
Sam Thomas (2017-present)
A master of all trades, the junior was the first top-100 recruit Barnes landed. As Barnes often relates, she had nothing to show Thomas at the time. The star from powerhouse Centennial High in Las Vegas simply trusted the vision. A vision that Thomas has helped make reality.
Her freshman season, Thomas had to take on a lot of roles, playing more minutes than any Wildcat freshman ever had. She averaged seven rebounds per game, becoming just the fifth Wildcat freshman to ever do so. She led all Pac-12 freshmen in rebounds, steals, blocks and minutes while placing second in scoring. It was enough to land her on the Pac-12 All-Freshman team.
She was also often called on to represent her team to the media in a year when they won just six games and lost to Northern Arizona. Her positive attitude never flagged.
That positivity and vision began to pay off last year. While Thomas took a step back in scoring, her all-around game helped her team to 24 wins and the WNIT title. The 18-game turnaround got the attention of the fanbase.
This season, Thomas is shooting 41.2 percent from beyond the 3-point line. She averages 1.8 steals and just over one block per game. Her biggest block of the year helped maintain a three-point Arizona lead as the Wildcats beat Arizona State in Tempe for the first time in 19 years.
Ify Ibekwe (2007-2011)
Ibekwe’s career straddles the decade marker, but her play as a junior and senior certainly merit inclusion on this list. Like Whyte, Ibekwe was a star who doesn’t always get her due because the program was suffering at the time. The two of them led the Wildcats to their only postseason appearance under Butts.
Ibekwe was the first player to really garner attention since the days of Shawntinice Polk and Dee Dee Wheeler. In fact, in 2008 she was the first member of the Pac-10 All-Freshman team since Polk.
The next season was even better. Ibekwe became the first Wildcat to make the All-Pac-10 first team since Polk and Wheeler in 2005. On the national stage, she was named to the honorable mention list of the 2009 AP All-American team.
As a junior, she was honored for her superb defense by being selected the 2010 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Her 352 rebounds became the Wildcats’ single-season record, breaking the record of 339 that was set by Polk just six years prior.
She led the Wildcats in scoring average in both 2009 and 2011 and led in total scoring in 2009.
Her name was raised into the Ring of Honor during the 2018-19 season, joining her former teammate and becoming the fifth former Wildcat to get the recognition.
Cate Reese (2018-present)
Reese is already on her way to becoming one of the greats at Arizona. As the program’s first McDonald’s All-American, Reese was the most anticipated recruit to ever join the Wildcats. Just a sophomore, she’s already living up to those expectations.
Reese led all Pac-12 freshmen in both scoring and rebounding last year. She was a member of the All-Freshman Team, but missed out on Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
When the award was voted on, the postseason had not yet been played. At the time, Reese led her class in scoring, but trailed Utah’s Dre’Una Edwards by a few tenths in rebounding. The award went to the Utes’ freshman, but Reese overtook Edwards in rebounds in the Wildcats’ run to the WNIT title.
Reese won the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award three times in her first season. She is well onto matching her weekly award total this year despite competing with the league’s older stars. She just picked up her second Pac-12 Player of the Week award on Dec. 30, after recording her fourth double-double of the season in a road win at ASU.
Honorable Mention: LaBrittney Jones (2013-2017)
The strength of the power forward position made it a difficult one to call. Should Jones get the nod for her longevity or Reese for her incredible play at a young age? In the end, Reese’s superior performance in her freshman and sophomore campaigns got her the nod, but Jones should not be forgotten.
Jones spanned the final years of the Butts era into the beginning of the Barnes era. For most of that time, she was a starter for the Wildcats.
Beginning her freshman season, Jones was already a force for Arizona. She started all 30 games and led the team with 5.8 rebounds per game and a total of 32 blocks. Those skills would end up putting her in the program’s record books.
By the time Jones was done, she was eleventh in scoring with 1,263 points, tenth in made field goals with 466, eighth in rebounds with 668, third in blocks with 161 and ninth in made free throws with 305.