The Cardiac Cats were at it again.
No. 6 Arizona rallied from a 12-point third-quarter deficit to beat Colorado 62-59 in Boulder on Friday, their third time overcoming a double-digit margin this season. The other two victories came at home against UCLA and USC.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes will gladly take the win—Pac-12 victories are tough to come by, especially on the road—but her team’s inconsistency has been maddening.
“We definitely showed we have heart...but we can’t do that and so I have to find a way to get into our mental space and figure out why we’re doing that,” she said. “I don’t know, so we’ll fix that. It’s just gonna take some time.“
Playing away from McKale Center for the first time, the Wildcats trailed the Buffaloes 51-42 heading into the fourth before rattling off a 13-2 run to grab the lead midway through the period.
Colorado briefly jumped back ahead with 1:01 left when Peanut Tuitele scored underneath, but Aari McDonald drew a foul on the other end and sank two free throws to put the Wildcats on top for good.
Cate Reese split a pair of free throws to make it 58-56 with 45 seconds left and a steal by Sam Thomas, plus four more freebies by McDonald iced the game.
The Buffaloes had a chance to tie it at the buzzer but a deep contested 3 was well off the mark.
“I just love our fight,” McDonald said. “But I wish we could start off that way instead of putting ourselves in holes and having to come back.”
McDonald was part of the problem but also a huge part of the solution, scoring 21 of her 24 points in the second half. She made two 3s and went 11 for 11 at the free throw line, her 71st straight game scoring in double figures—the longest active streak in the nation.
Reese, the only other Cat in double figures, finished with 10 points despite only have two in the first half.
“I just had to keep going downhill,” McDonald said. “I knew that they couldn’t guard me downhill and I just kept attacking and drawing fouls, and I had to just settle myself down and not let my opponent dictate my speed or what I’m doing for my team.”
Arizona got a much-needed lift from its bench. Helena Pueyo scored all nine of her points in the first half, including a four-point play at the end of the first quarter cut the deficit to 18-15 after UA trailed by eight early.
Shaina Pellington, who has struggled to begin her UA career, made key plays in the fourth quarter. She didn’t see the court in the first two quarters, but ripped off four straight points to bring Arizona within five with 8:52 left in regulation.
Trinity Baptiste muscled up a layup to pull the Wildcats within three, two McDonald free throws made it a one-point game, and Pellington laid in a loose ball to give the Wildcats the lead with 5:43 left.
After a Colorado basket, Thomas drained a 3 from the wing to put Arizona back ahead 55-53, its largest lead of the night at the time.
“I don’t want to necessarily say we were struggling, but we were kind of finding it hard to really get a stop and then a score and then the stop,” Thomas said. “We were kind of trading baskets with Colorado there for a minute, so having our bench players able to come in and pick up and get us some energy, I think that’s what was the key to this game.”
Colorado’s Jaylyn Sherrod, one of three Buffaloes to score 11 points, blew past McDonald for what could have been the go-ahead bucket with 2:14 left, but her layup attempt was far too strong off the backboard.
Sherrod also missed two key free throws with 1:21 left that could have tied the game or given the Buffaloes the lead. Colorado had a dismal night at the free throw line, making just half of their 22 attempts.
Even still, Arizona trailed by eight in the first quarter and by 27-20 at the half after shooting just 22 percent over the first two periods.
The Wildcats came out of the locker room hot to take a brief lead in the third quarter, but the Buffs used a 14-2 run to build a nine-point cushion entering the fourth.
“I don’t know what caused that,” Barnes said. “I think just a little adversity on the road, our first road trip, things are different. I think Colorado is very confident against us because they beat us here last year, so I think they really punched us in the face, had us on our heels. What was evident from Colorado is they were going to try to back cut us and really push the ball. We got beat on a couple back cuts early. I think we lost some confidence. A learning lesson for us.”
Thanks to better help defense and more awareness of those back cuts, Arizona flipped the script in the fourth, holding Colorado to 2-of-13 shooting. The Buffaloes missed their first nine shots of the period and were outscored 20-8 over the final 10 minutes.
“The way we played in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, that’s the defense we should play from the beginning,” Barnes said. “I don’t know why we wait, so there’s something I’ve got to figure that out. That’s my job as a coach figure out why we’re having those lulls and why we’re waiting till we’re down to kind of fight back and do that, Because we’re playing awesome defense at those times we really need to, but we’re just not consistent.”
Even so, Arizona is 5-0 overall and 4-0 in the Pac-12.
Friday’s victory was especially sweet for McDonald, who missed last year’s loss at Colorado with a leg injury. She could only watch as the Wildcats were held to 38 points that night.
“That was the lowest of our whole season, so it was just payback,” she said. “Huge props to Colorado. They shut us down, they had us on our heels the whole first half, but we just had to settle down in the second half. We wanted it more.”
Road games are a new experience—even for the upperclassmen
Part of Arizona’s slow start can probably be attributed to playing on the road for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, which forces teams to make all kinds of adjustments to their travel plans.
For instance, meals are all grab-and-go and the players are essentially confined to their rooms instead of hanging out with their teammates or doing some sightseeing around town.
Even for veterans like McDonald and Thomas, it’s a difficult experience.
“It’s so weird,” McDonald said. “I don’t like not being able to hang on my teammates. We can’t even play card games. We always gotta be apart. Our supporting staff is putting us in good positions to always be safe, but it kind of sucks. ... I just wish I would be able to hang out with my teammates more.”
Playing in fanless arenas makes it harder to get up for games too, Barnes said.
“It really is, so I think you’re gonna see better basketball in a month or two when the players are really used to it,” she said.
Utah up next
Arizona wraps up the Mountain trip Sunday at noon MST against Utah. The Utes are 1-3 in the Pac-12 with a road win over Oregon State.
Utah was leading ASU by double digits on Friday before losing 56-48 in Salt Lake City. Barnes expects another grind-it-out game.
“Utah, good shooters, run a lot of different on-ball stuff, so we definitely have to do good pick-and-roll defense and defend the shooters well, which we did at times tonight,” she said. “It’s gonna be a tough game and the second game here is always a challenge. But I think that we’re ready. I think that we understand that we have to fix the little things.”
The Colorado-Utah road trip is the only one in the Pac-12 that requires travel to two different states, so Barnes is thankful her program was able to secure chartered flights.
“It makes things a lot easier,” she said. “The travel is tremendously different. Tomorrow we’ll wake up, we’ll have 9 o’clock breakfast, we’ll have a film session and kind of go through what we’re going to do for the day. And then we’ll leave at noon and head out to the airport, fly out around 1. You don’t have to go two hours before, everything’s easier, and then we’ll fly to Utah, we’ll have a practice at Utah just so we can get used to the rims and the court because we don’t usually shoot around on Sunday with an early game.
“So we’ll practice there, have dinner and we usually would go to dinner if it was a normal year, but this year it’s grab-and-go, so it’s less team time together, less contact. And then we’ll wake up, we’ll have a walkthrough in the morning on Sunday, just to talk about certain things and personnel and our game plan.”