Aari McDonald owed UCLA one.
Two days before Arizona’s rematch with No. 8 UCLA, McDonald said she was determined to avenge the loss the Bruins handed them in Westwood earlier in the month.
She barked, then she bit.
McDonald scored 27 points, including 14 in a tone-setting first quarter, and Sam Thomas added a season-high 20 as No. 16 Arizona routed the Bruins 92-66 on Friday in front of 7,407.
It’s Arizona’s first win over a top-10 team since 2004, though they came close a couple times earlier this season when they lost to Oregon and Oregon State.
“That (loss to UCLA) didn’t sit well with us at all and we knew that we had to defend our homecourt,” McDonald said. “That is just a testament to where this program is and where it’s headed. We were due for a top-10 win and the sky’s the limit for us.”
The Wildcats showed how dominant they are at full strength. They have been marred by injuries and illness throughout Pac-12 play.
When Arizona (17-3, 6-3) lost to UCLA 70-58 in Westwood on Jan. 5, it was without starting forward Dominique McBryde (ankle), and sixth-man Helena Pueyo (illness) was severely limited. Both were healthy Friday and impacted the game in different ways, some obvious some not.
McBryde helped hold UCLA star post Michaela Onyenwere to 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Pueyo had eight points, three rebounds, and three assists.
Still, McDonald having a bounceback game made the biggest difference. When she plays like she did Friday, it is hard to imagine anyone beating Arizona.
McDonald was held to 19 points on 20 shots in the loss at UCLA, but went 10 for 15 from the field and only committed two turnovers Friday, tying a season-low. She drilled her first four shots, including a pair of step-back 3s, to build a double-digit lead that the Bruins never made a dent in.
“It felt good. I was on fire,” McDonald said.
Actually, “we came out on fire,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “We came out hot, we came out intense, we came out with the eye of the tiger.”
Sam Thomas erupted in the second quarter, burying three 3s to extend the lead to 38-22. The Wildcats shot 11 for 24 from distance, one of their most prolific nights of the season.
Thomas went 4 for 4 in her highest scoring output since the 2017-18 season.
“She shuts down everybody she matches up with every single game...and then on offense, the last couple of games, she’s been a difference in us winning,” Barnes said. “She’s aggressive. She is that next scorer that we need.”
The shot-making from McDonald, then Thomas, fueled a tenacious defense that held UCLA to 33 percent shooting. The Bruins could only muster six points in the first quarter.
“When you’re making shots and you’re hot, then you’re slapping the floor, you’re more confident on defense,” Barnes said. “So I thought we played some really good defense. They couldn’t get into their offense. We defended all their sets well. If we were supposed to hedge, we hedged. If we were supposed to ice, we iced. ... They run a lot of really difficult stuff and we countered.”
Trailing 47-32 at the break, the Bruins scored the first four points of the third quarter to trim their deficit to 11, causing Barnes to get a little uneasy.
The defense relieved the tension, forcing 14 straight misses and allowing the Wildcats to expand their lead to 70-48 heading into the fourth.
Thomas opened the period with her fourth 3 and Cate Reese, who had 13 points, scored underneath to make it a 25-point game. Things got so lopsided that Barnes was able to empty her bench and had to do a double take when she peered at the scoreboard.
“If you would have told me we’re going to give up 19 offensive rebounds, I would have told you we were gonna lose by 30,” she said. “But our defense was so good. We did so many other things. We forced them into 10 assists, 15 turnovers. This is a team that’s one of the best in the country at assist-to-turnover ratio. We didn’t allow that. And then for us to have 14 assists, 10 turnovers. That’s a good stat.”
The margin of victory may have surprised Barnes, but the result did not.
“We didn’t like jump up and act like we won a national championship because this is the expectation,” Barnes said. “We know nationally it’s an upset, but we feel like we can play with anyone.”
Arizona will go for its fifth straight win Sunday vs. USC at noon. The Trojans lost to No. 19 ASU in triple overtime Friday in Tempe.
A sweep would be “huge,” Barnes said. The Wildcats are currently tied with ASU for fourth in the Pac-12 and are only one game behind third-place UCLA.
Also: the top 16 teams host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and Arizona is right on the cusp of that designation.
“We celebrate tonight but forget tomorrow. I think that’s just the way it goes,” Barnes said. “USC is a very good team. USC is playing some of their best basketball right now, a lot better than when we faced them at USC, so we have to be ready to play. They could be a little bit tired...but we have to bring it. We have to play the same level defensively that we did tonight.”