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Arizona, ASU facing unique challenges heading into rare early-December rivalry game

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 24 Women’s Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Adia Barnes knows the Arizona-ASU rivalry as well as anyone. She played in it and now coaches in it. But when the two teams aren’t going at each other, she actually wants that school up north to succeed.

“I want [other teams] to have to prepare,” the UA coach said Wednesday. “I want them to come to the state of Arizona and at ASU they get their butts kicked. And then they come here and get their butts kicked. Then they leave the state of Arizona like, ‘Wow, that’s a tough trip.’ Because I feel that way going to Oregon and Oregon State.”

Up until a couple of years ago, the Wildcats weren’t holding up their end of the bargain. They were perennially one of the weakest teams in the Pac-12.

Now it’s the Sun Devils playing catch up.

Normally a Top-25 caliber squad, ASU (4-1) is unranked entering Thursday’s rematch in Tucson (4 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network).

The Wildcats are No. 6 in the AP poll—their highest ranking ever—and have won three of the last four in this series after losing 25 of 28 from 2005 to 2018.

Arizona (3-0) swept ASU last season for the first time since 2000—wins so cathartic that Barnes famously quipped, “it’s about damn time.”

“They wanted us to be good as their travel partner, and now we are good,” she smiled. “I think we’re doing better than everybody anticipated. And I think it’s just funny when I look back. When you’re not good, everybody wants to help you and everybody pats you on the shoulder and says, ‘Oh, if you need anything call me.’ And then when you get good, it doesn’t happen. Then it just becomes other things. It becomes like, ‘Oh, did you say something bad about me in recruiting?’ which I don’t entertain because I just don’t really care. But it’s just really interesting.”

You know what else is interesting? Thursday’s game is the earliest Territorial Cup matchup since 1978. The Pac-12 expanding the women’s basketball schedule from 18 league games to 22 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic meant an early start to conference play.

That also means having experienced players is more valuable than ever right now. The Wildcats are fortunate to have three great ones in Cate Reese, Sam Thomas and Aari McDonald.

ASU isn’t so lucky, welcoming seven newcomers and only returning one starter from last season. The new-look Sun Devils are battling injuries and haven’t clicked offensively, averaging just 57.8 points per game on 35 percent shooting.

They are still stingy defensively, though.

“I think we’re expecting a completely different style,” Barnes said. “They’ve changed a lot of what they do. They’re running more back cuts and more chin action, more Princeton sets. So it’s completely different, but the constant thing we know is that they’re really aggressive defensively, they’re really going to look to run and get up and down and capitalize off of our mistakes, and it’s our rivalry game so it’s going to be very, very competitive.”

And, if last year is any indication, very physical too. Arizona sometimes struggles in games like that, why the addition of Virginia Tech grad transfer Trinity Baptiste—who used to play streetball as a kid in Tampa—was so important.

The bruising forward said Wednesday that she is “made for” games like this.

“It helps a lot,” Barnes said. “I think the balance for us is we’re both very physical, so who’s gonna stay out of foul trouble? Who’s gonna play defense positionally and who’s gonna control the tempo of the game? I think we didn’t do a good job of that. We fouled way too much and I think a sign that your defense isn’t great at the time is fouling. Because great defensive teams don’t foul a lot, so we’re getting better this week, and you will see us improve from last week in just the way we play defense, our rotation, and those things. You’ll see more of an improved defense because it has not been good. At all.”

Arizona hasn’t been sharp on either side of the ball, needing to rally from double-digit deficits to beat UCLA and USC. The early-season swoon can be attributed to a COVID-altered offseason and having only three games to break in two new starters and several new bench players.

The Sun Devils, while even less experienced, have five games under their belt.

“We usually don’t play till end of December, so for both of us I think it’s a disadvantage,” Barnes said. “We both have new pieces, so I think whoever is going to execute the most and defend the best is going to win the game. We’re both two good defensive teams and it’s going to be a battle.”

The Wildcats won’t have the benefit of a raucous home crowd on Thursday, but it’s hard to say that made a difference last year. Arizona won 58-53 in Tempe and 59-53 in Tucson, when over 10,000 red-clad fans packed McKale Center.

“I think an advantage is experience, but I think sometimes when you’re a freshman you don’t know what to expect, so you just go out and play,” Barnes said. “You have no pressure, so I think in that sense they have an advantage.”

If the Wildcats prevail, it would be the first time they have won three straight against ASU since 2000 when they rattled off 14 wins in a row. Barnes, who was quick to note that she never lost to the Sun Devils as a player, was part of eight of them.

“We just need to keep that trend going and we got to play hard and we got to build our team chemistry,” Reese said. “I think we’re getting better each game, but we have to improve a lot faster and I think we’re doing that, so I’m excited to see what we do tomorrow.”

Pre-ASU interviews

Adia Barnes

Adia Barnes pre-ASU

Adia Barnes met with the media to discuss Thursday's rivalry game vs. ASU

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Trinity Baptiste and Cate Reese

Cate Reese and Trinity Baptise pre ASU

Cate Reese and Trinity Baptiste discussed Thursday's ASU game and how they are improving their team chemistry

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, December 9, 2020