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Arizona enters soft part of Pac-12 schedule with NCAA Tournament implications at stake

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 17 Women’s Colorado at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats are entering the easy part of their Pac-12 schedule, but that only means there is more pressure to win.

It’s pretty simple: if the 12th-ranked Wildcats handle business against the lesser teams they’re about to face, they will be in stellar shape to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, a privilege afforded to the top 16 teams in the nation.

But if they lose to the teams they are supposed to beat? Well...

“All the work we did early means nothing,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes.

Five of Arizona’s final six games are versus teams with losing conference records, and four are in the friendly confines of McKale Center, where the Wildcats are 10-2.

Those six contests are...

  • vs. Washington (11-12, 3-9) and Washington State (11-13, 4-8)
  • at Utah (12-11, 5-7) and Colorado (14-9, 3-9)
  • vs. No. 8 Stanford (21-3, 10-2) and Cal (9-14, 1-11)

“Coach has been harping that our schedule is in our favor and we have to play the way we’re capable of playing’ll help down the road,” said forward Dominique McBryde.

Stanford is a top-10 team but Arizona has beaten two such squads this season, including Sunday when it went to Corvallis and outlasted then-No. 9 Oregon State in overtime.

“They’re all winnable, so we’re hoping to go 6 for 6,” said point guard Aari McDonald.

The Wildcats have spent much of the conference season as the hunters, seeking upsets against ranked teams like Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA.

Now, they are the ones being hunted, which presents its own set of challenges. For one thing, they will get every team’s best shot.

“These are games we should win, but can we win them? Can we handle adversity? That’s gonna be another test for us,” Barnes said.

“For us, our main thing is one game at a time. I’m not even talking about Sunday, we’re not even thinking about Washington State. We are focused right now on Washington and how we beat them on Friday. We know they’re a good team. We know that we should win at home. But we also know that at Washington, we were down by 19 and we got lucky and found a way to win. So it’s not a game we can overlook by any means. We can’t overlook any team in our conference. So do we want to sweep? Yes. But is it going to be hard? Yes. But we need to do it.”

Barnes proud of response at Oregon State after Wildcats ‘didn’t compete’ at Oregon

Barnes originally wasn’t aware that Arizona’s victory at Oregon State was its first-ever road win over a top-10 team. And even when she was relayed that factoid, she was more impressed by her team’s effort in Corvallis. The result was a bonus.

It came two days after the Wildcats “didn’t compete” in a 33-point loss at Oregon, forcing them to do some soul-searching before battling the Beavers.

“We started the first quarter pretty good and then we just kind of laid down and that’s not who we are and that’s not what we do,” Barnes said. “So I questioned why that happened and no one really had an answer. I think that they just felt defeated, but I pointed to them out on film that we weren’t competing. And so I challenged them and said, ‘Hey, how are we gonna respond?’ It’s easy when things are going great, it’s easy when you’re winning games, when you close things out. But how is it after you get your butt kicked? And they took the challenge.”

Barnes thinks a new routine sharpened their focus. Arizona practiced Saturday in lieu of a walkthrough, then squeezed in a 7 a.m. shootaround on Sunday.

“Most of our players were in foul trouble, so for us to be able to handle that adversity on the road after a tough game on Friday, I think it showed a lot about our team and their will to win,” Barnes said. “And when I asked them, it was funny. Some of the responses were, ‘we didn’t want to get swept.’ And I said, ‘well shoot you should have not wanted to get swept on Friday,’ and they kind of laughed, but they really stepped up with a different sense of urgency.”

Healthy McBryde shines at Oregon State

Barnes said players nowadays are wired differently than when she played.

“For example, if someone’s going to isolate you on defense, take it personal,” Barnes said. “It’s a different mentality...and you can’t teach it.”

Thankfully, McBryde has it.

The senior forward stepped up big time at Oregon State, dropping a season-high 19 points in the win, 13 more than her season average.

McBryde hit a 3 and went 6 for 7 on 2s, exploiting a mismatch on Mikayla Pivec, a wing who was forced to play in the post after Kennedy Brown tore her ACL.

“Pivec’s a great defender, but she’s smaller and Dominique did a great job of just scoring on the block and they then kind of changed, but by that time she was in a rhythm,” Barnes said.

McBryde, as usual, made some key defensive plays as well.

“There was a lot of plays where it was an overload situation and we were in trouble the post, she anticipated it and blocked shots,” Barnes said. “I think that was one of her best games as a Wildcat. We don’t win that game if she doesn’t play like that.”

McBryde has returned to full health after missing all of December with a major ankle sprain. Being sidelined caused her to lose strength in her calf—to the point that Barnes joked it looked like an arm—and get easily fatigued in her first games back.

But now McBryde said she trusts her body again and is able to endure a heavier workload. She played a season-high 43 minutes at Oregon State.

“I didn’t start playing basketball till like the fifth or sixth week, and jumping into playing the second and third team in the nation was pretty difficult,” she said. “And then of course the Pac-12 schedule was pretty tough, it’s the best conference in the nation, so I think that it kind of took a couple games just to get used to what I’m doing and get back in the swing of things.”