All good things must end, and the nation’s longest active winning streak was that good thing on Sunday. The Arizona Wildcats went to Westwood hoping to pick up their 14th win to open the season and the 20th stretching back to last season. It would have been their first victory over a top-10 opponent since 2004, and the first road win over such a team in program history.
It wasn’t to be. After a strong first half against the 10th-ranked UCLA Bruins (14-0, 3-0), the Wildcats (13-1, 2-1) succumbed in the second half in an eventual 70-58 defeat.
What were the major takeaways?
3-point shooting is a problem
It was hoped that the team would show improvement from beyond the arc this year. Now 14 games in, though, it doesn’t look like that’s the case.
As a group, they are shooting 33.4 percent from the 3-point line. In Pac-12 play it dips a bit more with the Wildcats shooting 32.1 percent from distance over the first three games. Those who are taking the most 3s are the ones who are having the most difficulty connecting on them.
Four players have taken at least 30 3-point shots this year. Sam Thomas and Helena Pueyo are keeping the team’s numbers respectable. Thomas has connected on 17 of 43 for a 3-point shooting percentage of 39.5 percent. Pueyo is even better with a 45.7 percent success rate on 21 of 46.
The issue is that Arizona’s two starting guards are struggling mightily from out there. If there’s one area of Aari McDonald’s game that is open to criticism, it’s 3-point shooting. While no one is going to be able to stop her from hitting once she gets into the lane, if they can turn her into an outside jump-shooter, they greatly increase their chances of keeping her below 20 points.
McDonald has taken 68 3-point shots this season. That’s the most on the team by far. She’s only made good on 16 of those (23.5 percent). The fact that she is still shooting 48.1 percent from the floor tells you just how strong she is at getting to the basket. But the fact that she’s missing so many of her shots from distance is a problem for Arizona as the strength of schedule increases.
The other starting guard, Amari Carter, is having even more difficulty. Carter has hit only six of her 32 shots from 3-point distance. That’s an abysmal 18.8 percent from someone taking the fourth-most long-distance shots on the team.
On the flip side, in addition to Pueyo, there is some promise for the future. Freshman Tara Manumaleuga has made good on nine of her 19 3-point balls despite only playing 7.7 minutes per game. She came in and hit against the Bruins. If she can improve other parts of her game, she could be a solid contributor when Arizona needs someone off the bench to come in and give a different look.
Mara Mote did not score against UCLA, but she also offers some threat from distance. The freshman from Latvia is playing 7.9 mpg, but has hit seven of 13 long balls (53.8 percent). Like Manumaleuga, though, she is young and needs to improve other parts of her game to get significant minutes.
Adapting to the officiating is crucial
In two of the Wildcats’ three Pac-12 games, fouls have been an issue. Against Arizona State, McDonald was called for two fouls just over six minutes into the game. She eventually fouled out for the first time in her college career.
McDonald wasn’t the only one who had disqualification concerns that day, either. Thomas had four fouls when it was all said and done, and Semaj Smith picked up three in just 14 minutes.
A bigger problem for Arizona was that, despite the physical nature of the game, McDonald only went to the line six times against the Sun Devils. Forearms to the chest and hacks on the drive were not guaranteed to be called in her favor. Considering that McDonald is predominantly a slasher, there’s certainly a case to be made that she should have taken at least a couple more trips to the charity stripe that day.
Against UCLA, Arizona again had problems getting comfortable with the officials. The Bruins went to the line 13 times in the first half. The Wildcats shot just two free throws. If UCLA had been at all proficient in hitting those foul shots, they would have had a healthy lead at the break. Instead, it was a tied ball game.
The second half was more of the same. Arizona was sent to the line five times. UCLA went 10. The final disparity was seven shots for the Wildcats and 23 for the Bruins. McDonald was sent to the line only three times all afternoon.
This time, the Wildcats lost two players to fouls—Thomas and Smith—and McDonald ended with four fouls. Even Cate Reese had three.
Whether they are good or bad calls is neither here nor there. Arizona has no choice by to learn how to adapt more quickly. Arizona coach Adia Barnes has praised McDonald several times this year for keeping her head despite not getting the calls. It may be something the guard has to deal with all season.
What the Wildcats should not have to deal with is the unnecessary offensive fouls. They are getting called for far too many illegal screens. Smith seems to have at least one per game, and Sunday was no different. Cleaning that up as she moves forward is a priority.
Still room to grow
Barnes has said that the team is not where they need to be yet. That was clear in the second half against UCLA. Whereas the Wildcats were able to respond to Bruin runs in the first half, they weren’t able to answer the bell in the second.
The team is still relatively young, though. They are starting two sophomores and playing a freshman significant minutes right now. Another starter is in her first (and only) year with the team, and they had three more freshmen see the court on Sunday.
Getting the opportunity to play against a top-10 team and experience conference play helped all of Arizona’s freshmen on Sunday. Only Manumaleuga put points on the board, but four of the Wildcats’ five freshmen have now seen what it takes to play against the best the country has to offer.
That’s going to be more important than ever, because Pac-12 play continues along the steep incline of difficulty for Arizona.
The Wildcats’ sixth man
The Wildcats finally hold their Pac-12 season-opener on Friday. Not counting their annual School Day promotion that draws over 8,500, Arizona has averaged 4,051 fans per game this season. Their last home game against UC Santa Barbara drew 4,498 fans, the biggest crowd this season except for the 8,542 at School Day.
This season, the only Pac-12 teams outdrawing Arizona are No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Oregon State. That has been demonstrated by the first three games of conference season.
Arizona State was able to bring in 4,009 for the season opener, but a significant number of those were wearing cardinal and navy. Whether they made the drive up from Tucson or were Valley residents, Wildcat fans made up a huge portion of the crowd despite the University deciding not to send a fan bus up this season.
At USC on Friday night, a mere 509 people showed up for the game. That’s the second-smallest crowd the Wildcats have played in front of this season. Only Chicago State, which has won a mere handful of games over the past three years, drew fewer.
Despite a match-up between two undefeated top-20 teams, Pauley Pavilion had just 3,011 on Sunday afternoon.
Arizona will need that sixth man more than ever next week. After playing No. 10 on the road, their reward is to come home to face the third-ranked Beavers and the second-ranked Ducks. It’s life in the Pac-12.