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What we learned from Arizona’s historic win over UCLA

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 31 Women’s UCLA at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Earlier in the week, Aari McDonald made a couple of things clear. First, the Arizona Wildcats had some scores to settle with the UCLA Bruins. The second was more personal: she was primed to go against UCLA guard Japreece Dean.

“I know every time we play UCLA we go back and forth,” McDonald said. “When I play against her, I kind of have a little extra boost or motor going. It’s definitely a battle. She’s a good player. We’re both competitive. We both want to will our teams to victories, but it’s going to be interesting and a good matchup to watch.”

How did McDonald and her team come out on top of that matchup?

Payback

On Jan. 5, the Wildcats went to Westwood to face the Bruins in a matchup of unbeatens. Something had to give, and that something turned out to be Arizona. UCLA controlled the game, and the Arizona players weren’t happy about it.

“We were just really motivated,” McDonald said. “The last loss we had against them didn’t sit well with us. Although we lost by 12, we felt like we got blown out.”

The Wildcats look towards the future despite another historic mark

Arizona had its best-ever start this year when it got out to a 13-0 start. The Wildcats returned to the Top 25 for the first time in 15 years during that streak. On Jan. 24, the team completed its first sweep of Arizona State in 20 years. That bumped the Wildcats up to their highest ranking in two decades.

It seems like every week there’s another achievement that hasn’t been accomplished in decades, if ever. Friday night was no different.

The 2003-04 season was a great year for Arizona women’s basketball. Shawntinice Polk and Dee-Dee Wheeler were the inside-outside duo leading the team to a 24-9 record and 14-4 in the Pac-10. Those 24 wins included the last victory over a top-10 team prior to Friday night.

After losing to them earlier in the season, the Wildcats beat No. 7 Stanford on Feb. 5, 2004. It was enough to share a piece of the regular-season title with the Cardinal, although Stanford would take the rematch when the two met up in San Jose for the Pac-10 Tournament championship game just a few weeks later.

The Wildcat players and coaches were aware of the momentous occasion, but you would have never known by their reactions after the game because...

Upset? Not so much

“I think this is a great win for our program,” Barnes said. “I mean, 16 years since we’ve beaten a top 10 team. We continue to do things that no one expected, but we expect that. We didn’t go to half court and celebrate. We celebrated with the drum, by beating the drum, but we didn’t like jump up and act like we won a national championship because this is an expectation. We expected to win the game. We know we can. So for us, it’s not upset. We know nationally, it’s an upset but we feel like we can play with anyone.”

It’s certainly true that the majority of voters in both major polls would consider this an upset. After all, UCLA has been at least No. 11 in both polls since the preseason. Meanwhile, the voters not only didn’t rank the Wildcats in the preseason, but the media didn’t even have them in the poll after they went to Austin and annihilated Texas on the Longhorns’ home floor.

Barnes, her players and Wildcat fans weren’t the only ones who thought an Arizona win was a likely outcome, though. The sports books did, as well. The line on the game was Arizona -2.5.

Winning pretty

Last Friday, Arizona had to slog out an ugly win over Arizona State. There are no style points in basketball, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to play a beautiful game. Against UCLA, that’s exactly what the Wildcats did.

The Wildcats did not miss a shot until the 3:11 mark in the first quarter and they only missed two shots over the entire 10-minute period. They ran out to a 27-16 lead by shooting 75 percent from the floor over the first frame. They even hit four of their six 3-point attempts.

They didn’t run out of gas, either. Their lowest shooting percentage was 37.5 in the second quarter, but they ended the game shooting 54.7 percent overall, 45.8 percent from 3, and 79.3 percent from the free throw line.

The Wildcats took care of the ball, especially in the first half. When halftime rolled around, they had only turned the ball over once while forcing the Bruins to cough it up nine times.

UCLA would only turn it over six times after the half while forcing Arizona to hand it over nine times, but they were already in a huge hole by that time and Arizona’s big lead and hot hand made it difficult for the Bruins to dig themselves out of that hole.

Lots of scorers

Yes, McDonald had the big night with 27 points, but it takes more than one person to pull off this kind of domination over a top-10 team. Three Wildcats were in double figures and two more had eight points apiece.

The second-leading scorer for the Wildcats was Sam Thomas whose 20 points were just two shy of her career high. Thomas has always been one of the best shooters on the team, especially from distance. She just didn’t always seem ready to pull the trigger.

“I think defense has always been my focus going into every single game,” Thomas said. “So now my coaches are telling me to shoot. Aari’s telling me to shoot every time, and they’re just giving me the green light. They’ve always given me the green light but this time I’m actually just taking it into consideration, ‘Okay, Sam, they believe in you. You believe in yourself,’ and just going with it.”

Amari Carter also showed that she can have an impact on offense. In her last nine games, Carter has at least eight points five times. Prior to that, her high was six points and she had only scored that many on two occasions.

“Amari Carter was huge tonight,” Barnes said. “She drove to the basket more. She was playing great defense. She had a different sense of urgency today. And the last couple games she has been someone else besides Sam who has stepped up big time. I mean, she has eight points but I felt like her points were really important. The time they came in was huge. And her defenses is very, very good.”

Tournament impact

Barnes said during the non-conference season that the relatively weak strength of schedule her team faced prior to Pac-12 play didn’t matter. She said her team would have the opportunity to beat good teams in conference play. They have, and they’ve gotten the wins to put them in good position for the NCAA Tournament.

On Monday, the women’s college basketball world will get some insight into the thinking of the tournament committee. During halftime of the Oregon-Connecticut game on ESPN2, the initial top 16 seeds will be announced. This is a snapshot of how the committee members think the teams stack up right now.

The Wildcats would love to find themselves in the top 16 when the final bracket is announced in March. That would mean playing the first two rounds of the tournament in McKale Center rather than traveling to someone else’s home court.

After Friday’s win, they have certainly taken steps towards being there when all is said and done. The official RPI had the Wildcats at No. 33 after games were played last week. Realtimerpi.com, which features an unofficial RPI that is updated several times per day, had Arizona at No. 26 after win over UCLA.

The Wildcats are 3-3 against teams in the top 25 of the NCAA’s official RPI and 4-3 against the top 30. Against the top 100, they are 6-3. Their three losses come against the No. 1, No. 5 and No. 11 teams in the official RPI.

To get homecourt advantage for the first two rounds, they will need more wins like this one. The have a chance for another quality win on Sunday when they host USC at 12 p.m. MT.