The Arizona Wildcats were so close last weekend at No. 7 Stanford and California. So close. Their inability to close the deal on two important road victories had coach Adia Barnes questioning her own decision making as much as that of her players.
“It was hard,” Barnes said. “I think mentally for me, because as a coach, you’re like, ‘What could I have done differently, better to help? And I think you kind of beat yourself up, especially when you’re up by 20. But it is what it is, and you got to move on, and be strong and be the leader.”
After pouring over the lessons of their Bay Area trip, the ‘Cats (17-10, 7-9 Pac-12) return home to face two more daunting challenges: the No. 6 Oregon Ducks and the No. 9 Oregon State Beavers. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose, according to their coach.
“We should feel competitive,” Barnes said. “I think (the games against Stanford and Cal) showed us that we can play with anyone in the country. And we can defend anyone in the country at certain times, when we’re disciplined. But it’s also tough to finish Stanford, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State. That’s a pretty darn tough four games. But what are you going to do? I always say to our team, ‘There’s no pressure on us, because Oregon’s supposed to come in here and beat us. Oregon State is supposed to come in here and beat us. So, they have more pressure than we do.’ We’re just playing. If we win, we win. If we don’t, no one thinks we should win anyways. So, I think that should make us feel good. And I think we’re playing some pretty good basketball right now.”
Two weeks ago, it looked for all the world like Oregon was going to run the table in the Pac-12. The Ducks had just defeated Stanford on the Farm for the first time in school history to improve to 13-0 in conference—and they had done it by 40 points. Who in the league was going to beat them?
Well, Oregon State was, for starters. Since the Ducks’ beat down of the Cardinal on Feb. 10, they have been defeated twice themselves—once on their own home floor by UCLA and once in the first battle of the Civil War.
Still, Oregon comes into McKale with a 14-2 league record. It has the ability to secure at least a share of the regular season title with a win.
There’s every reason to believe the Ducks will do it. Last year, they grabbed sole ownership of the league title on the Wildcats’ home floor. They will return with the essential core intact and the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense.
Sabrina Ionescu holds the all-time record for triple-doubles in NCAA basketball, men’s or women’s. She is also No. 3 on the season’s assist leaderboard with 8.2 dimes per game.
In addition to Ionescu’s team-leading 19.4 points per game, Oregon has three players averaging double digits in scoring and a fourth averaging 9.9.
If there’s a relative weakness for the Ducks, it’s their defense. Their scoring defense is ranked 129th in the country. That’s 22 spots lower than Arizona’s. The Wildcats allow their opponents to score 88.1 points per 100 posssessions, while Oregon allows 91.2.
The problem for Arizona is that its slightly superior defensive numbers don’t make up for considerably inferior offensive numbers. The Ducks average 123.4 points per 100 possessions and 87.2 points per game. The Wildcats are putting up 99.6 points per 100 possessions and 69.7 ppg.
When the Wildcats face Oregon State on Sunday, they will be facing a young player who has a very similar story to their own Aari McDonald. They will also be facing one of only two Pac-12 teams who have beaten the Ducks this year.
Destiny Slocum transferred to Oregon State after earning WBCA National Freshman of the Year honors at Maryland. Like her point guard counterpart at Arizona, Slocum sat out last year due NCAA transfer rules.
Slocum is among the conference’s top 10 scorers with 16.7 points per game. Her scoring is efficient, ranking her 15th in the league with a 47.4 shooting percentage.
Arizona will need to play almost perfect games to beat teams with players like Ionescu or Slocum. It won’t be good enough to play 30-35 great minutes, like it did in the Bay Area. To take down either the Ducks or the Beavers, they will need to avoid their biggest foes of late: mental mistakes.
“At Stanford, I felt we controlled the game for 36 minutes,” Barnes said. “But I think that’s the difference in playing an unranked team and a team with a ton of experience, a ton of grit and fight with one of the best coaches in the country. They don’t die. And they made some huge plays. Every time we made a mistake down the stretch, they capitalized. And that’s what the No. 7 team does.”
That’s also what the No. 6 and No. 9 teams do. Can Arizona control the game for 40 minutes, avoid the mistakes, and come out on top this time?
The game against Oregon will start at 8 p.m. MST on Friday and air on the Pac-12 Networks. Senior Day festivities will be held on Sunday after the game against Oregon Statewhich begins at 3 p.m. MST and will also air on the Pac-12 Networks.