Arizona coach Adia Barnes expected the second rendition of the Duel in the Desert to be similar to the first, saying Wednesday it would be “super physical”, a “really good game” and probably low-scoring since “we’re really good defensive teams.”
All that turned out to be true. The final score was almost the same, too.
Fueled by nine 3-pointers, including a pair of buzzer-beaters, No. 18 Arizona staved off No. 16 Arizona State 59-53 on Friday in McKale Center in front of 10,160 raucous fans, almost doubling the previous attendance record for an ASU-UA game.
They got to witness Arizona seal its first sweep of the Sun Devils since 2000. The Wildcats won the first matchup 58-53 in Tempe on Dec. 29.
“It’s about damn time,” Barnes said. “It’s monumental for this program because we weren’t a factor when I first took this job. … It’s not like that anymore. People better be aware that when they come to the desert, they better bring their game. It’s not gonna be easy.”
The Wildcats only shot 33 percent in the rematch, but made big shots in big moments.
Amari Carter, who made three 3s and finished with a season-high 11 points, drilled a corner trey as the final seconds ticked away in the third, increasing Arizona’s lead to 39-33. It capped a critical quarter for the Wildcats in which they outscored the Sun Devils 19-10 to erase a three-point halftime deficit.
It would have been a six-point deficit if not for Aari McDonald. The UA guard caught an inbounds pass and took a few dribbles before pulling up near midcourt, banking in a long 3 at the buzzer to pull Arizona within 23-20 heading into the second half.
AARI MCDONALD BEATS THE BUZZER pic.twitter.com/4bHnB8nWSb— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 25, 2020
McDonald’s other highlight play came near the end of the first quarter. With Arizona down 10-6, she stripped Iris Mbuilto and went coast-to-coast for a layup, finishing with her left hand through contact.
McDonald took a blow to the face and crashed hard into the stanchion. Mbuilito was assessed a flagrant foul and McDonald sank both free throws to complete the four-point play.
She finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, and four steals in 39 minutes, earning the right to bang the drum 16 times after the Wildcats improved to 16-3 overall and 5-3 in the Pac-12.
“My mindset was, ‘kill, kill, kill,’” McDonald said. “Like OK, they can’t guard you and once they step up, I got shooters in the corner. I had teammates stepping up making shots.”
Dominique McBryde’s corner 3, one of her two triples on the night, stretched UA’s lead to 48-42 in the fourth, which eventually ballooned to 52-42 with 1:36 left after McDonald and Sam Thomas swished two free throws apiece.
Thomas stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, three blocks and three steals, her length as disruptive as usual.
“Without her on the floor, it is hard to win games,” Barnes said.
Already down six, the Sun Devils missed seven of their first eight shots to begin the fourth, then made four of their next five to trim the deficit to 56-52 with 43.5 seconds left.
They couldn’t draw closer. The Wildcats buried just enough free throws down the stretch to ice the game. McDonald scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, eight coming from the free throw line.
“No pressure, no diamond,” she said. “I live for it and I know that at the end of the game, coach wants the ball in my hands and I’m confident.”
The game was loosely officiated, making points hard to come by and grittiness a must. The Wildcats rose to the occasion by outrebounding ASU, one of the best in the nation in that department, 38-35.
“We did a remarkable job and the players will tell you we have worked on it every day,” Barnes said. “I don’t think it takes athleticism, I don’t think it takes anything but your determination to box out, so we worked on it every day for two weeks. ... We chart every missed box out, and then after practice they run. So it’s paying off. They’re not going to like that, but we’re going to continue to do that.”
The Wildcats did not get their usual scoring punch from Cate Reese, who was limited to five points and did not score her first bucket until a putback tied it 29-all with 3:34 left in the third. Before that, she missed her first five shots, including a couple makable ones around the rim.
But she contributed in other ways, like snatching seven rebounds and helping hold the Sun Devils to 36 percent shooting by battling on the block.
“The numbers don’t show the posts and what they did tonight,” Barnes said. “I think they played great defense, I thought they boxed out, they did their jobs, and next time they’ll hit those shots, so I’m proud of both of them.”
Robbi Ryan paced the Sun Devils with 25 points, their only player in double figures, a rarity for a team that prides itself on balance. It was a similar night for Arizona, who got zero points from its bench.
“Both teams’ offense looked like crap except for Robbi Ryan,” Barnes said. “But we found a way.”
The crowd helped. Barnes grabbed the microphone after the game and thanked the fans for their support, saying “we called for you, and you came. We won this game because of you.”
“It means a lot,” she later added. “In games like these, when we’re going through those lulls and not scoring and they’re going on runs, it’s the fans that get you going and pumped.”
The Wildcats will play in front of the UA faithful again next weekend when they host No. 10 UCLA and USC, a good opportunity to build on their three-game winning streak and get revenge on the Bruins, who handed Arizona its first loss back on Jan. 5.
“We can have payback,” Barnes said. “I think we can win some games here in McKale. With this kind of crowd, it makes it a lot easier. I don’t know anywhere else besides Oregon and Oregon State where there’s a crowd like this.”
Adia Barnes on having 10,160 fans at Arizona’s win over ASU: “I love Tucson, I love these fans. ... In games like these when we’re going through those lulls…it’s the fans that get you going.” pic.twitter.com/dAKH5lzfwA— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 25, 2020
Adia Barnes on sweeping ASU: “It’s monumental for this program because we weren’t a factor when I first took this job. … It’s not like that anymore. People better be aware that when they come to the desert, they better bring their game because it’s gonna be hard.” pic.twitter.com/TUthnUJzD7— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 25, 2020