The Arizona Wildcats emerged from the non-conference season with an encouraging 10-1 record. Still, there were questions.
Had they really improved to the point where they could compete in the brutal Pac-12? Were they the 10th-best team in the conference, as the preseason poll suggested, or were they being underestimated?
The first suggestion that they were ready to compete came on Dec. 29 when they beat in-state rival Arizona State by 12, controlling the game from start to finish.
After that, the question was whether they were ready to back that up by sweeping the regular season series. On Friday, that turned out to be too big of an ask, as the Sun Devils defeated the Wildcats 60-47 at Wells Fargo Arena.
Neither team came out of the locker room looking ready to play. It took almost two minutes for the anyone to put points on the board. Courtney Ekmark got things going for ASU with a field goal at the 8:09 mark.
Between the two teams, only six buckets and two free throws were scored in the opening frame. When the first quarter ended, the score was a paltry 9-7 in favor of the Sun Devils.
ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne blamed it on the time of the season.
“You get to this point in the season, all you guys who cover college basketball and have done it for any length of time, the scoring goes down,” she said. “I don’t know if anybody watched Louisville-UConn, but that was pretty ugly at times.”
The Sun Devils were finally able to get things going in the second period, but the Wildcats continued to struggle. After a seven-point first quarter, Arizona put up only six in the second. When the buzzer signaled halftime, ASU had taken a 25-13 lead.
The Wildcats finally found a way to get the lid off the bucket in the third quarter.
Well, Aari McDonald did, anyway.
McDonald scored 14 points in the third. The team put together a 22-point period while holding the Sun Devils to 14. At the end of 30 minutes, the Wildcats had cut their rival’s lead to four.
“We would have liked to come out and put them away, but that’s hard to do,” Turner Thorne said. “U of A’s a very good team, and they did a great job of just hanging around and just fighting to the bitter end.”
ASU responded in the fourth, though. They had a 21-point quarter of their own. Arizona responded with only 16. Again, McDonald did the bulk of the Wildcat’ scoring, contributing seven of those points.
McDonald’s outsized share of the scoring has plagued Arizona all season. Arizona coach Adia Barnes has repeatedly said that they cannot win with one player scoring half of their points.
In recent weeks, it looked like that problem was beginning to fade. Arizona had four players score in double figures against both USC and UCLA last weekend. Cate Reese had scored in double digits in five of the last six games, giving the Wildcats a steady second option.
“We need to play team basketball,” Barnes said after last week’s loss to UCLA. “We don’t ever want someone to have 30 points and everybody else 5. You just don’t win games like that.”
Against ASU, everyone but McDonald once again disappeared on offense. The Pac-12’s leading scorer didn’t just have half her team’s points. She had 28 of their 47.
McDonald shot 8 of 22 from the floor and 11 of 12 from the line. Sam Thomas was the next-leading scorer with five points. No one else had more than three.
ASU senior Kianna Ibis was asked if it was just happenstance or if the Sun Devils went in with the plan to limit everyone else, because McDonald would be able to get her points somehow.
“It feel like it’s a little bit of both,” she replied. “We came in with the mindset to not let anyone get started. But, y’know, she’s a great player. She’s going to get what she got. We had to make sure it wasn’t everyone who got on.”
Arizona needs to find out how to get everyone on when they travel to face Washington and Washington State next weekend.