Arizona grabbed a double-digit lead in the first quarter and never looked back in a 77-60 win in Salt Lake City.
It’s the first time in program history the Wildcats have swept the Mountain schools on the road, as well as the first time they have ever started 5-0 in Pac-12 play.
“I’m very happy because we were called the comeback kids until today,” head coach Adia Barnes said. “We addressed the slow starts because it doesn’t work on the road, so I’m glad our players went out and mentally adjusted to that. You know, 28 points in the first quarter...probably our best of the year so far.”
After leaning heavily on Aari McDonald in Friday’s nail-biter at Colorado, the Wildcats used a balanced effort to down the Utes. McDonald still led the way with 19 points—her 72nd straight game scoring in double figures—but all 13 scholarship players saw the court and 10 made at least one shot.
Cate Reese and Sam Thomas had 11 points apiece, Thomas’ highest scoring outing of the season. She swished three 3s, including two in the first quarter.
Shaina Pellington had another strong performance off the bench with nine points and three rebounds. She drove for a layup to put Arizona up 28-17 with two seconds left in the first quarter, Arizona’s biggest lead of the game at the time.
“I literally told the team in warmups, ‘You guys, we cannot come out like we did on Friday,’” McDonald said. “We have to come out with energy. We just can’t keep digging ourselves in holes, like we just can’t. And my teammates really took that to heart and we came out and it started with me playing defense, Sam got a steal, Cate did and we were converting.”
The Wildcats held the Utes to 38 percent shooting and forced 22 turnovers, which they turned into 29 points.
A 3-pointer by Niyah Becker cut Arizona’s lead to 60-53 in the first minute of the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats quickly doused the threat by reeling off a 9-0 run capped by a 3 from Helena Pueyo.
Arizona got 28 points from its bench and used 11 players in the first half alone. McDonald only played five minutes in the second quarter when Utah outscored Arizona 16-13 and was able to cut the deficit to 41-33 at the half.
Arizona extinguished Utah’s momentum that time by starting the third quarter on an 11-2 run. A refreshed McDonald had seven points during that stretch, including a 3 and a layup on consecutive possessions to put UA up by 17.
“Aari doesn’t usually sit that much in the first half, but the season is long,” Barnes said. “When we’re playing 22 conference games, we have to find ways to rest our starters or else at the end the season they’re going to be done. Even if it’s a couple minutes here and there each game, it’s the accumulation of all those things at the end of season it’s really important. So that was the plan here and the altitude is another reason, obviously.
“But I thought that our bench did a really good job of stepping up. I thought Semaj (Smith) gave some really good minutes. She came in strong, good moves. I thought Lauren (Ware) played well. I thought Derin (Erdogan) gave it an energy (boost). Shaina off the bench had another really big game. We’re really good when we can go into our bench and not fall off.”
The plan was also to pound the ball inside, and that worked too. The Wildcats logged 42 points in the paint.
“Utah wins 81 percent of time here in Utah, so for us to start the Pac-12 this strong, it just pays dividends later,” Barnes said. “Last year, that was one of the things that put us in a really good situation—winning early and then there’s not pressure at the end. We’re getting ready to play a couple really good teams. We have Idaho at home, but then in the Pac-12 we’re getting ready to play Stanford and Cal. [Stanford] is the number one team in the country for a lot of good reasons and we have to get better and prepare really well for that team.”
McDonald thinks the Wildcats are steadily recapturing their identity as a smothering defensive team, but still aren’t playing as well as their No. 6 ranking indicates.
“I love our fight and our resiliency, but we cannot have this many defensive lapses,” she said. “These are the things we talked about positioning-wise—we have to switch aggressively. We let somebody hit a 3 and bring the game to single digits. We just can’t allow that at all. And against good teams, that can cost us games. We gotta keep playing our style of defense and we can’t let up.”
Colorado has COVID issues, which has Arizona on edge
Colorado, the team Arizona just beat Friday, had to cancel Sunday’s game vs. ASU due to a COVID-19 case within their program.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Arizona is bound to have some positive tests, but it’s something to keep an eye on ahead of Wednesday’s home game vs. Idaho.
“I think we’re safe because of the situation and the tracing, but it’s still very scary,” Barnes said. “It’s scary because I don’t know. That could wipe us out for a week or 10 days, I think. That’s just how the season is gonna go. And to be honest, when another team has a situation, if there is a player that plays a lot, it’s almost impossible not to contact trace my players.”