Here are six takeaways from the day.
The Wildcats were unprepared for their “new reality”
Arizona coach Adia Barnes said she was nervous all the way up until warmups, wondering if her team was actually going to play. She’s seen COVID-19 cancel games all over the country.
Plus, not much felt normal about game day. Barnes wrestled with decisions that she’s never had to make before, like determining who sits where on the bench and how pregame meals and shootarounds could be conducted in a safe manner. Game-planning seemed secondary.
Tip-off didn’t restore a sense of normalcy, either. McKale Center was empty and players and staffers were in masks, seated six feet apart on the sideline—a weird vibe for a program that prides itself on its family atmosphere.
“I’m proud we got to play and I’m glad and I’m thankful, but it’s hard to coach,” Barnes said. “Just coming into a game like this, and I’ve been talking with friends who kind of feel the same way, you don’t feel prepared because you don’t really know what to prepare for. So I think for us, the players and myself, it’s getting used to more distance on the bench, it being harder to talk to your players, and just the environment. It looked more like a practice. We were very flat.”
The Wildcats fell behind in the first quarter and only led by six at the half. Barnes said they made uncharacteristic errors on defense and, in general, were “rusty.” They shot just 37 percent in the first half, looking mechanical in the halfcourt.
The slow start makes even more sense when you consider that they were breaking in two new starters—one of whom sat out last season—and hadn’t played a game in 266 days. (Yes, they were keeping count.)
Arizona eventually broke the game open in the third quarter by shooting 59 percent and outscoring the Lumberjacks 31-22.
“This is our new reality right now, so we just have to be able to adapt to that and just create our own energy,” forward Cate Reese said. “We can’t come out flat. We have to be on point and that’s definitely something we’re gonna have to work on, especially not having fans. Fans are such a huge advantage for us.”
Cate keeps getting better
When Reese first arrived in Arizona in 2018, she was a productive yet clumsy player who always seemed to lose her footing when making plays in traffic.
She’s come a long way.
Reese was in total control Sunday, catching the ball on the block and making swift, decisive moves around the basket. Her touch was soft. She feasted on the boards.
The junior posted 21 points and 11 rebounds on a crisp 9-of-13 shooting, putting her on track to improve her scoring average for the third straight season.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Barnes said. “Cate has improved so much. She played today like she does every day in practice. She goes hard. I think she’s been the one dominating our gold jersey. She just played great, she rebounded well, she was leading our fast breaks and she’s just gotten so much better. I’m proud of her.”
Proof of Reese’s improvement? She scored with her left hand.
“My freshman year I could not go left to save my life,” she said. “I had skill (drills) every day, I still do a lot of skill and I will stand on my right side and just do left-hand hook shots. 50 of them in a row. It made me more comfortable. It wasn’t fun at first but it’s definitely helped me a lot. And I’m happy I did it because I feel so much more comfortable going right or left.”
Defensive rebounding and 3-point shooting are still issues
They have been Arizona’s biggest weaknesses the last few seasons and it looks like they could still haunt them this year.
The Wildcats only outrebounded a small NAU team 48-46 and shot 3 for 13 from 3, with Aari McDonald accounting for all three makes. They missed their first seven triples until McDonald splashed one with 3:13 left in the third quarter.
Sam Thomas, Helena Pueyo and Tara Manumaleuga were the only other players to even attempt a 3.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well, I think we looked a little bit gassed,” Barnes said. “But we hadn’t played a game, and practice doesn’t really simulate a game, so those are things we will get better at.”
Virginia Tech grad transfer Trinity Baptiste was—and still is—expected to help shore up Arizona’s rebounding woes, but the physical forward only had three boards in 23 minutes.
The Lumberjacks played five-guard lineups, but still tracked down 16 offensive rebounds. A scary stat considering Arizona’s next opponent is No. 9 UCLA, the second-best offensive rebounding team in the Pac-12 last year.
“Yeah, rebounding is a concern. I thought we had a lack of focus on boxing out,” Barnes said. “I thought transition defense, we could do a better job, but these are things that we definitely can get better at—and we will.”
It’s not all on Aari anymore
It was pretty telling that Arizona was able to take a nine-point lead in the second quarter despite McDonald getting off to a shaky start from the field.
The superstar point guard missed seven of her first eight shots and only had three points in the first half, the kind of scoring drought that would have doomed the Wildcats in previous years.
Now they have plenty of other options. Reese (21), Baptiste (12) and Shaina Pellington (11) all finished in double figures.
With them handling the bulk of the scoring, McDonald was able to use her energy to impact other areas of the game. She still scored 18 points, but also had eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals, spearheading an aggressive defense that created 22 points off 15 turnovers.
“Our team isn’t just Aari,” Barnes said. “Aari is one of the best players in the country, if not the best player in the country, but we have more of a balance which is good. It showed a little bit today because before we’ve struggled to get multiple players in double digits in scoring, and I think we now can do that consistently.
“But that’s the good thing as you get better as a team—if Aari is having a night where she’s 1 for 8, which everybody is gonna have nights like that, she has to do other things and other people have to score. Today that was Cate stepping up, Trinity got some boards, that was Lauren (Ware) off the bench. ... And I think you’re going to see later Aari doesn’t always have to have the ball at the last second. We sometimes can get Aari easy shots by Shaina (Pellington) creating, making the defense collapse. Before that, she was the only one that could create off the dribble.”
McDonald is already noticing the difference.
“We definitely got some improvements to do, we practice on Tuesday, but I can see glimpses of my teammates making my job easier this year, so I’m happy about that,” she said.
Lauren Ware will contribute right away—and maybe more than expected
Barnes has tempered her expectations for Ware in her freshman season, even though she was a 5-star recruit. Remember, Ware usually splits time between basketball and volleyball and is only a little over a year removed from an ACL tear that forced her to miss her senior season of high school.
Barnes once tore her ACL and said it took her a year to physically recover and another year to regain complete confidence in her knee.
Ware appears to be ahead of the curve. She was the first post off the bench Sunday and finished with eight points and five rebounds in 17 minutes. The highlight of the day was when she hit a fallaway jumper in the middle of the key.
Unlike Reese and Baptiste who are forwards, Ware is a true center.
“Hopefully she continues to learn and grow, but she’s awesome,” Barnes said. “She’s great in every way, she’s tremendous for this program. She is one of the few freshmen I’ve ever met that talks the way she does. So on defense she is the talker, the communicator which I love and you can’t teach that. She has that and I think that’s from volleyball because they just cheer after everything and they talk all the time, so it helps her with basketball.
“But she’s got really good hands, she’s a 3-point shooter, she finishes around the rim. We’ll work with her more on finishing with her left and just shooting on balance a little bit more, but she’s getting better and I’ve seen her improve since she’s been here in the last month. She’s going to be a very special player and, if she sticks to basketball, I think she can be a star.”
We know who Arizona’s top 10 players are heading into Pac-12 play
This was Arizona’s only game to prepare for its Pac-12 opener—crazy, I know—so Barnes didn’t empty the bench until late in the fourth quarter.
Up until then, she was rolling with these 10 players (their minutes in parentheses, starters in bold):
- Aari McDonald (30)
- Sam Thomas (24)
- Trinity Baptiste (23)
- Cate Reese (22)
- Bendu Yeaney (21)
- Shaina Pellington (19)
- Helena Pueyo (18)
- Lauren Ware (17)
- Semaj Smith (7)
- Derin Erdogan (6)
Is this the rotation we can expect moving forward? Kind of. For one thing, the starters will play more. It will probably shrink, too.
“We have a lot of people and we have a lot more depth, so we played a lot of different combinations,” Barnes said. “In most games I’m not gonna play 12 people. It’s very hard to get consistency and in some sort of rhythm going so deep into the bench.”
Smith only playing seven minutes was a bit surprising, but the 6-foot-6 shot-blocker will have better matchups in the Pac-12.
“I think you’ll see us settle a little bit more in the Pac-12 because we’ll play more traditional positions,” Barnes said. “And I think it’ll be a little bit easier, but then the level is going up really fast. So the challenge for us is going to be we don’t have multiple games where we get these kinks out. Before, we have a scrimmage or two or three exhibitions and then we go into the Pac-12. Right now, we have a game, we go into the Pac-12. That’s a disadvantage big time.”