The Arizona Wildcats have struggled with two things in their first three games: slow starts and chemistry. Would a shake-up in the starting lineup fix one or both?
On Wednesday, the Arizona players and head coach said that they were still trying to develop that chemistry after the truncated off season. It didn’t help that the pandemic has forced teams across the country to go without their usual male practice players, necessitating having potential starters going against each other in practice rather than developing that chemistry together.
On Thursday afternoon, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes decided to make the change. For the first time this season, Bendu Yeaney started in the backcourt next to Aari McDonald, taking over for Shaina Pellington.
“I don’t put a lot of stock into who starts and who doesn’t,” Barnes said. “We have eight or nine capable starters. So sometimes it’s matchups, sometimes it’s just trying to have a different pace. We’ve had some slow starts, so I thought it would be a good idea—after Shaina and I talked—a good idea for her to come in at the one off the bench. I thought she did a really good job.”
Whether it had to do with chemistry or not, it helped with the slow starts. After having almost as many turnovers as field goals to open the game against UCLA last Friday, Arizona came out hitting 4-9 field goals in the first five minutes. Yeaney had the opening basket, hitting a 3-pointer over the ASU zone.
The Wildcats would roll from there. When the final buzzer sounded, it was a 65-37 victory.
It’s UA’s first three-game winning streak vs. ASU since 2000 and also its largest margin of victory since 1998.
“A lot of these things I don’t even think about,” Barnes said when told about those stats after the game. “I just kind of take it day by day....I didn’t even know a lot of that. But it’s what I expect right now. We have the ability. We have depth. We have a good team.”
McDonald took over early. The Arizona star already had her 70th straight game in double figures when halftime rolled around, putting up 11 points on 40 percent shooting. That included 2-5 from the 3-point line.
McDonald ended the game with 22 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal in 29 minutes. She tied her career high with five made 3-pointers.
“Once you see the ball go in, gives you confidence,” McDonald said. “‘Okay, I’m gonna shoot another one.’ See if this goes in, and it went in.”
Cate Reese was the only other Wildcat in double figures with 13 points and 7 rebounds.
At the end of the first quarter, the Wildcats were up 15-9, the biggest lead for Arizona in the opening quarter so far this season. When halftime rolled around, they had done even better. Once again, they held the Sun Devils to just nine points in a quarter, but they also put up 19 points on the offensive end.
“We definitely want to have defense be our identity,” senior forward Sam Thomas said. “Last year, obviously that was like one of our basic identities. We were pretty good at it. And this year, we have some new players, we’re trying to mesh well, and because defense is all about rotating and communication, so we’re still trying to find that chemistry and bond. I think this game we really showed that we can have that defense as well as we did last year.”
ASU’s zone defense was something Arizona has become used to seeing in the early part of the season. This time, the Wildcats were able to make the opponent pay by going 6-15 from 3 in the first half. It was key to building the 34-18 lead after the first 20 minutes.
Arizona cooled off from distance as the second half wore on, but stretched their lead to as many as 29 points in the fourth quarter. They would end the game 11-31 from 3 and 21-51 overall.
The Sun Devils were led by Taya Hanson with 14 points. Eboni Walker pulled down nine boards for ASU.
The Wildcats moved to 4-0 on the season and 3-0 in the Pac-12 while the Sun Devils fell to 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the conference.