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What we learned in Arizona’s loss to Oregon women’s basketball

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 12 Women’s Oregon at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A third straight game against a top-10 team led to a third straight loss for the Arizona Wildcats. In two of the three, the team was within striking distance, but couldn’t quite get it done.

What did we learn from Arizona’s 71-64 loss to the Oregon Ducks?

Aari McDonald will do whatever she can to see her team improve

Everyone knows that Aari McDonald is the cog that makes the wheel go for Arizona, but there are parts of her game that have not been up to her standards. Perimeter shooting has been one of those in the first half of the season. On Sunday, McDonald reminded everyone that she is dedicated to getting it right for her team.

McDonald arrived at McKale over five hours before game time to get in more practice shooting. Her dedication paid off.

McDonald scored 25 points on 8-for-17 shooting. She hit five of her 10 shots from 3. She did it while also being the team’s leading rebounder with five boards. Adding in two steals and two assists while only turning the ball over once was everything the team could ask of her.

For weeks, her coach has been preaching that it would happen for her. She also knows that there have been extra challenges for McDonald in trying to improve her percentages.

“So the 5 for 10 is really good because they’re step-back 3s, they’re end-of-shot-clock,” Barnes said. “None of them are just fed off of someone else creating, so I give her a lot of credit. I knew it was going to come. We talked about that. I have been saying that....She can be a 34 percent 3-point shooter. She’s not a 28, 29 percent 3-point shooter. So she will do that. And to get to the next level she’s got to do that and she knows that. She was in here at 6:45 today. We had a walkthrough at 7:45. She’s in here at 6:45, so I’m just proud of her.”

As for why she was in the arena at 6:45 a.m., McDonald said she knew it was what she needed to do.

“Kind of been in a shooting slump,” McDonald said, “and I know that one way you get out of a shooting slump is just keep shooting and just being confident, and I think I came out confident in this game.”

She did get out of that slump and she was confident. It just wasn’t enough to get the win for a number of reasons.

One bad quarter...again

Last year, Oregon was able to hold Arizona to four points in the opening quarter of their game in Eugene and zero in the fourth quarter in Tucson. Last week, UCLA had a 28-13 third quarter to in a game that Arizona lost by 12. Today, it was the second that would come back to haunt the Wildcats.

The Ducks outscored the home team 17-6 over the second 10 minutes. In a game that ended 71-64 in the visitors’ favor, it made all the difference.

“I’m trying to forget about it,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “But when you have six points and eight turnovers against No. 2 in the country, you will not win. So the second quarter was definitely a backbreaker for us. Because every other quarter, we were even or outscored them.”

The Wildcats looked sluggish in the quarter. At times, it looked like they were having difficulty running the floor and shots were short, but McDonald felt the problem was on the other end of the floor.

“I just think that we were not communicating and that’s a big factor on defense,” McDonald said about the second quarter. “We need to communicate, know where shooters are at all time. Even myself, I made an error. I rotated too far down and they got a 3. So, I don’t know. It was just communicating. That and just locking in on defense.”

Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding

Arizona is having a great deal of difficulty on the boards. On Sunday, the Wildcats were outrebounded by the Ducks 39-23. Oregon’s 12 offensive rebounds led to eight second-chance points. In a seven-point game, those eight points were crucial.

It’s not just Pac-12 teams that have given the Wildcats fits on the boards. North Dakota State outrebounded Arizona 30-28 in the opening game of the season. UC Riverside had the 21-19 edge when they visited McKale late in November.

Since conference season started, the Wildcats have only out-rebounded two opponents: Arizona State and USC. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that they won those two games.

Facing players like Ruthy Hebard, it became an even taller task against Oregon.

“We can’t get beat by almost 20 on the boards or 17, whatever it is, and win a game,” Barnes said. “If you told me we’re gonna lose by 17 on the boards, I would have said we’d lose by 30 points. So the areas we need to get better at is rebounding. That’s the first thing. We will not beat a top five team in the country or a top 10 team. It happened at UCLA, happened at Oregon, happened at Oregon State. Better rebounding and then it’ll take care of a lot of the other things.”

What’s the fix?

“I know that the area we have to make improvements is rebounding,” Barnes said. “We have to. We are going to work on it every day, every single day. Because that’s my job to improve on what we need to do to win. And that’s the thing that’s going to not enable us to win against top teams. Now, we will beat teams we’re supposed to beat, but we won’t beat the top teams in the country with that.”

The injuries have a big impact

While she didn’t use it as an excuse, Barnes was clearly frustrated by having one of her key players injured yet again. Just as the team got Dominique McBryde back from an ankle injury, crucial reserve Helena Pueyo injured her ankle in the second quarter against Oregon State. After missing all but five minutes of that game she was in a boot and unavailable on Sunday. Pueyo also played just 11 minutes against UCLA due to illness.

“I think one of the toughest things for me is we’re not able to stay healthy as a team and compete against the best,” Barnes said. “Today they played a zone the entire game. It is very hard for a team to play zone the entire game. With Helena, I don’t think they can stay in zone the whole game.”

Amari Carter is finding her way on offense, but there’s a ways to go

Amari Carter arrived at Arizona having averaged near or in double digits all three years at Penn State. Although she’s been solid on defense, she struggled on offense in the early going. She scored five or fewer points in 10 of the Wildcats’ first 13 games and was shooting under 20 percent from beyond the arc.

Over the last three games, a stretch where Arizona has faced three top-10 teams, Carter finally seems to be getting into her groove. She scored eight against UCLA while going 2 for 5 from distance. Against Oregon State, she had her best game of the season with 10 points on 40 percent shooting. On Sunday, she shot 42.9 percent and had seven points against the Ducks.

“I think she had a really good weekend,” Barnes said. “I think she asserted herself against Oregon State. She makes these—I don’t know how she makes some of those pull ups, but she does. She’s an athlete. But you know, we needed her to be aggressive. We need to have multiple players in double digits.”

Against Oregon, Carter also spent much of the first half guarding Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu had only two points in the opening 20 minutes, although she racked up eight assists on her way to her 22nd career triple-double.

Barnes still feels like they need more, though. Until Carter can bring her 3-point percentage up, it falls on Pueyo and Sam Thomas to stretch the defense so McDonald can operate. If Carter can get back to her career percentages, the Wildcats will have more options and opponents will not be able to sag off so many of their players.

The team will have the chance to put that in action next week when they travel to face Washington and Washington State.