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Sam Thomas’ career night leads Arizona past Utah as Aari McDonald sits with injury

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Women’s Monmouth at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Donning street clothes and a boot on her left leg, Aari McDonald laughed on the bench as Arizona put the finishing touches on an 85-69 win at Utah. That she was missing her first game in two years turned out to be no cause for concern.

The Wildcats have Sam Thomas.

The junior set a new career high with 31 points on Friday, blowing away her previous high of 22 set her freshman season, and doing so with incredible efficiency.

Thomas went 8 for 13 from the field, 2 for 2 from 3, and a perfect 13 for 13 from the free-throw line. She also tied Cate Reese with a team-high six rebounds and added two steals and two blocks, leading the 11th-ranked Wildcats (22-4, 11-4) to their fourth straight win.

“She was aggressive,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes told radio announcer Derrick Palmer after the game. “She was looking, she knew she had to step up. And I think she just did an incredible job.”

It wasn’t just Thomas. The Wildcats used an all-around team effort to control the young Utah Utes in the early going. Lucia Alonso dropped a season-high 14 points, including 12 in a big first half, Dominique McBryde had 12, and Reese chipped in with 11.

The Wildcats came out hot on both ends. Five steals and a blocked shot helped them build a 26-13 lead through one.

That’s when things got a little trickier. Utah (12-14, 5-10) went 3 for 4 from 3 in the second quarter, though Arizona still maintained a 13-point lead at the break.

The Wildcats didn’t do a much better job in the third as the Utes hit 60 percent of their 3s, and Arizona fouled them on two 3-point shots.

With a minute gone in the fourth, Utah had drawn within seven. Three minutes later, the Wildcats put their foot down.

A layup by Thomas. A layup by McBryde. A 3 from McBryde. Free throws from Thomas. One player after another contributed until Arizona had a 20-point lead and coasted to the finish line.

“We went to a different on-ball defense because I didn’t want us to be in rotation,” Barnes said. “We got in rotation and we were giving up 3s and we were getting driven on all the time. So I thought we did a better job and we adjusted.”

With the win, the Wildcats moved closer to clinching a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament, needing just one more win—or an ASU loss—to secure a top-four finish in the conference.

It is unclear when McDonald will return from what is being deemed a “lower leg injury”, but Arizona hopes she can play Sunday at Colorado, a comparable team to Utah.

“I didn’t think that we’d come in here and score 85 points,” Barnes said. “I felt that our first quarter was really solid and second quarter was not. They made a run in the third quarter, they’re really good team, they have really good shooters, but I was proud of our fight. I asked people to step up and I think that everybody stepped up in a little way.”