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Takeaways from Arizona’s win over Utah

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Salt Lake City, Utah - Arizona’s Bendu Yeaney (23) guards Utah’s Kennady McQueen (24) on Dec. 20, 2020 at the Jon M Huntsman Center.
Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats extended their perfect record to 6-0 and protected their place atop the Pac-12 standings with a 17-point victory over the Utah Utes. Our full recap is here, but keep reading for some additional insight into the Wildcats’ performance.

So much for those slow starts

Slow starts have plagued the Wildcats in almost every game this season. Prior to Sunday, the only opponent they jumped on from the start was Arizona State.

The defense was a mixed bag in the opening quarter. The Wildcats gave up 17 points and allowed Utah to shoot 62.5 percent from the floor. Even worse, the Utes were hitting 67 percent of their 3-point shots.

In almost every stat, Arizona was just a little better. The Wildcats turned the Utes over eight times in the opening quarter. Those turnovers became nine points for Arizona. Meanwhile, Utah was only able to get three turnovers off their opponent, resulting in just three points.

“Our turnovers,” said Utah head coach Lynne Roberts. “I mean, we can’t give them 10 more possessions and expect to win.”

While the home team went just 3-6 from the charity stripe, Arizona hit 5 of their 8 shots. The Wildcats got three second-chance points, while the Utes didn’t get any.

What it added up to was 28 points and an 11-point lead when the first 10 minutes were over.

“We were called the comeback kids up until today,” head coach Adia Barnes said. “Really good job. We talked about that. We addressed the slow start because it doesn’t work on the road. So I’m glad that our players went out and mentally adjusted to that.”

Upperclassmen are finding their grooves

Sam Thomas has struggled on the offensive end to start the the season. And while Shaina Pellington has been quietly consistent, her impact on the game wasn’t as noticeable when she was starting. Both of those issues have been put to bed over the past few games.

The Colorado game was just one more piece of evidence.

Outside the game against Southern California, Pellington has been consistent this season on the offensive end of the court.

She scored 11 points in her debut for the Wildcats. She is shooting 41.2 percent from the field. She just hasn’t played many minutes.

Against Utah, Pellington got her season high with 20 minutes. The result was a nine-point effort. That compares favorably to her play against NAU, when she scored those 1 points in 19 minutes against the Lumberjacks.

“This is how Shaina can play all the time,” Barnes said. “It’s nothing new. It’s what I knew when I recruited her. It’s what I expect from her. She’s a great player, and that’s why she has a chance to be an Olympian this year.”

Thomas—Arizona’s steady senior—also had a good opening night against NAU. She shot 60 percent that night, although that was only good for six points. Then, she started to fall off.

The big slump was from distance. Always a reliable 3-point shooter, Thomas opened the season 0-9 from out there in her first three games.

Something finally clicked for her. In the past three games, Thomas has gone 4-10. Against the Utes, she launched five from distance. Three went through the hoop.

“I thought Sam was great,” Barnes said. “Sam’s getting a groove back. Sam had a stellar game last year here. When Aari was out, Sam had 30. Sam came in aggressive doing those things.”

Depth shines

For the first time since Barnes came back to coach Arizona, depth is a strength of the team. All 13 scholarship players got into the game. Ten of them scored at least two points.

And the bench didn’t just play “garbage minutes.” As usual, Helena Pueyo and Lauren Ware were the first two reserves off the bench, but it didn’t stop there.

After sitting out until the second half on Friday, Pellington entered late in the first quarter. She got started immediately, connecting on her only shot and grabbing on offensive rebound in 90 seconds of play. Seven of her nine points came in the first half, and all came off penetration.

It wasn’t a surprise to see Pellington on the court in the first quarter after her strong showing against Colorado. It was more surprising to see freshman point guard Derin Erdogan come in to replace Aari McDonald with 11 seconds to go in the opening period—and starting the second quarter.

Erdogan was joined by Pellington, Pueyo, Ware and Baptiste to kick off the second frame. Among the five, only Pueyo played any minutes for the Wildcats last season.

When Erdogan was subbed out with just over seven minutes to go in the half, it was not McDonald who replaced her. Instead, it was sophomore guard Mara Mote. McDonald would not re-enter the game until the 4:56 mark in the second quarter.

In the past, Barnes would not have been able to sit her star guard for over five minutes of clock time. This season, the Wildcats have been able to maintain or extend their leads without their All-American on the floor. During Sunday’s early going, McDonald left with an 11-point lead and returned with her team ahead by 13.

“Aari doesn’t usually sit that much in the first half,” Barnes said. “But the season is long. When we’re playing 22 conference games, we have to find ways to rest our starters or else at the end of season, they’re going to be done. So finding ways to rest them, even if it’s a couple minutes here and there. Each game is accumulation of all those things. At the end of the season it’s really important. So that was the plan here. And altitude is another reason, obviously, but I thought that our bench did a really good job of stepping up....So I think that it worked really good when we can go into our bench and not fall off. And so that’s why it’s a team win.”

That depth may be even more important this year because of the next lesson learned on Sunday afternoon.

All of the precautions in the world may not be enough

As Arizona and Utah were going at it, the broadcasting crew let viewers in on a little secret. The game that was scheduled to air next was not going to be played. The reason is familiar by now: COVID-19 concerns within the program.

Why did it matter to the Wildcats? Because the program in question was Colorado, a team Arizona played fewer than 48 hours before they took the court against the Utes. The Buffaloes didn’t take on the Sun Devils on Sunday out of the old “abundance of caution,” but the details of the novel coronavirus scare inside the Colorado program haven’t been shared.

Barnes said that she learned about the positive test within the Colorado program on Saturday night, but the players had not been informed yet.

“I don’t know who, so we don’t know who’s going to be contact traced,” she said. “So, I was stressed with that, so then I waited yesterday, and found out today the game is canceled. So it’s scary. I think they canceled it just to be safe. But I think we’re safe because of the situation and the tracing. But it’s still very scary.”

In addition to the obvious health risks an infection on an opposing team might pose, there are also concerns about what it does to a team competitively.

“It’s scary, because that could wipe us out for a week or two or 10 days,” Barnes said. “So that’s just how the season’s gonna go. And, and to be honest, when another team has a situation, it’s almost impossible for a player that plays a lot, it’s almost impossible not to contact trace my players. So when you play against someone, let’s say we play against Utah or Utah’s playing against us. If we have a situation where someone has it, when you’re on the court there’s so much contact throughout the game. If they’re a high-minute player, it’s going to wipe out some other teams.”

Teams with quality depth are more likely to get through a situation where starters are quarantined due to infections on opposing teams. That may allow Arizona to play through issues that might force other teams to pause activities.

“You want to get people experience,” Barnes said. “Have them ready for down the stretch. And that’s what we wanted to do this weekend.”

The press release from Colorado stated that the game had been postponed and “an update on the direction of rescheduling will be made available when details are known.”

The effect on Arizona is also still unknown. The Wildcats are scheduled to host Idaho on Wednesday, Dec. 23 at noon. Their next conference game is Jan. 1 against Stanford.