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Arizona women’s basketball needs to go ‘back to the drawing board’ after scares vs. UCLA, USC

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The Arizona women’s basketball team rose to No. 6 in the latest AP poll, the highest ranking in program history.

But they are overrated, according to their own head coach.

“Can we be a top-10 team? For sure. But we’re not playing like a top-10 team right now,” Adia Barnes said Sunday. “I think we have the ability, I think we have the personnel, I think we have the tools to be there and we have the tools to win a championship. But we aren’t playing at the level to do that.”

The Wildcats are 3-0 but have only been sharp in spurts. They beat NAU by 13—a small margin against a Big Sky team—and swept No. 9 UCLA and USC by a combined four points, having to overcome double-digit deficits in both games.

Arizona’s offense was stagnant against UCLA and the defense was shoddy against USC. The Wildcats are shooting just 23 percent from the 3-point line and have been outrebounded 128-123 on the season. They’re nearly committing as many turnovers (37) as they’re creating (39).

“It shows that we’re not as good everybody thinks we are right now, just to be honest,” Barnes said. “We’re not disciplined right now, so I talked to the team about we have to be humble. We have to work on fundamentals. We have to work on basics like jumping in the air and making passes, that’s not what we do. And that’s stuff we work on every day so I just don’t know why it’s not translating to the game. So what I’m gonna do is go back to the drawing board, continue to have us work on it, and we will get better.

“But the positive thing for me as a coach is I’ve seen a drastic improvement. We played NAU, did not play well, played better against UCLA, but we’re probably putting together like 20 minutes of good basketball. And then we play the USC, we did get the sweep, which is huge for us, because they’re both really good teams, but we did it coming back ... So we’re like the comeback kids right now, but you can’t win games like that.”

Arizona has gotten off to slow starts, losing the first quarter against USC and UCLA and even trailing for most of it against NAU.

Barnes has attributed that to the Wildcats breaking in two new starters, including Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington, who only has 15 points (on 18 shots), three rebounds and one assist in three games.

Senior forward Sam Thomas has made her usual contributions on defense but her numbers are down across the board, shooting just 6 for 19 from the field and 0 for 9 from 3.

Indiana transfer Bendu Yeaney is a strong, athletic defender and has made some key energy plays off the bench, but is shooting 27 percent.

Usually a dangerous marksman, Helena Pueyo is 3 for 10.

Barnes would not rule out the possibility of making changes to the starting lineup, but sounded like someone who is going to see it through.

“You always consider different things but...I was a player, so you want to give an opportunity,” she said. “And I think Shaina is a really good player and she’s very important for what we do, and she’s so talented. I mean, I don’t know of a better athlete in the country. So we have to find ways to put her in situations to be successful—her and Sam and (Helena) Pueyo because it’s just that our offense is stagnant at times. And I think that’s okay, but I can do a better job of helping her out. I mean they’re kids and if I knew what I knew now when I was their age I would have been a lot better.

“So [Shaina] has to get going. I think great things we can do is get her in transition, different things like that, really play to her strengths. But she also hasn’t played (college basketball) in almost two years and so it takes time. And she’s willing to work and she wants what’s best for the team, so whatever her role is, she’s fine with. But she’s gonna really help this team and she’ll be a big, big factor for our team.”

While Barnes was candid about her team’s struggles, it still says a lot about the progression of the program that it was able to beat two Pac-12 teams, including the ninth-ranked team in the country, without playing anything close to its best basketball. And the players deserve a lot of credit for battling back from those big deficits. That resiliency can take them a long way.

But the next step in Arizona’s quest to be an elite program is being able to live up to lofty expectations.

So far, they’re falling short.

“I think getting a split or stealing a game here and there was kind of how it used to be,” Barnes said. “Now we are expected to win and I think it’s a very different role that none of us have been in. I think when you have all these rankings, you’re projected high, they don’t mean anything. But I think what it does is you get everybody’s best shot. Like I told them, we used to be the underdogs and you could play with no pressure. I think it’s a lot easier to play with no pressure. So I think for us, we shouldn’t look at it as pressure. We need to go out there and have fun and play our style and stick to what we do, and we’re not doing that yet. We’re doing that at times. When you see us coming back, you see that type of basketball. But we just need to do that consistently for 40 minutes and then we’ll play at a different level.”