One of the biggest weaknesses for the Arizona Wildcats this season has been 3-point shooting. On Friday, they found their stroke on the way to defeating the Washington Huskies by a score of 64-53.
Aari McDonald led the Wildcats with 19 points on 80 percent shooting.
Three additional Wildcats joined her in double digits, including freshman Helena Pueyo (14), Cate Reese (13) and Amari Carter (10). Reese also led the team in rebounds with seven.
The Wildcats improve to 20-4 overall and 9-4 in the Pac-12.
Washington’s Amber Melgoza led the game with 22 points, but her team fell to 11-13 on the season and 3-10 in conference play.
Just as they did in Seattle, the Huskies came out ready to play from the get-go. Unlike the game in Seattle, Arizona didn’t wait until the second quarter to respond. The Wildcats kept things close in the opening quarter despite allowing Washington to shoot 50 percent from the floor.
Earlier in the week, Adia Barnes mentioned that one of the challenges the Huskies posed was their shifting defenses, especially their presses. Washington made use of the press early in the game, but it didn’t seem to phase Arizona.
What Arizona did struggle with was trying to force passes in the halfcourt. They turned the ball over four times in the first quarter, primarily when trying to put perfect passes through tiny windows in the paint.
The solution was to draw the Washington defense out of the paint. The Wildcats needed to start hitting some outside shots. Both Sam Thomas and McDonald had missed two apiece, so someone else might need to take up the mantle.
Pueyo has spent the past five weeks in a bit of a shooting slump, especially from outside. She had connected on just three of 20 shots from 3-point distance beginning with the Wildcats’ trip to UCLA back on Jan. 5.
On Friday, Pueyo ended the first quarter with two straight 3s to trim the Huskies’ lead to 13-12. She opened the second quarter with two more. The first gave Arizona the 15-14 lead. The second tied things up at 18.
“I felt good,” Pueyo said. “Maybe it was because of my birthday.”
The 3-point bug seemed to pass to her teammates from there. Thomas and Carter both connected. Along with Pueyo, the three went 4 for 5 from beyond the arc in the second quarter. As a result, when the teams headed into the locker rooms, Arizona led 32-26.
“(Pueyo’s) a 40-plus percent 3-point shooter,” McDonald said. “And, so when I drive, everyone is collapsing. She’s open, Sam’s open, Dominique (McBryde is open). So, with our ability to shoot, she definitely spread the floor, so they don’t know who to guard.”
The Wildcats ended the game shooting 49 percent overall and 50 percent (9-18) from outside.
It wasn’t just about the offense, though. The Wildcats weren’t able to take the lead and put some distance between themselves and their opponent until they buckled down on the other end of the floor.
“I think the first half, but especially the first quarter, Washington was shooting probably like 48 percent,” McDonald said. “We don’t really like when our opponent’s shooting that high of a percentage, and so we just have to adjust. Once our defense kicked up, everything fell into place.”
Thomas was a big reason why the defense kicked in. The junior forward had a career-high six blocks to go along with four steals. She also contributed six points on the offensive end.
“Sam is 5-11,” Barnes said. “She’s not 6-3. So, she’s a phenomenal defender. I hope she’s up for (Pac-12) Defensive Player of the Year. There is no doubt in my mind that she’s All-Defensive team, for sure.”
Arizona will need a similar defensive effort when they face Washington State on Sunday. The Cougars lost to Arizona State by just three points on Friday night.