After Friday night’s historic victory over the UCLA Bruins, there was very little to criticize in the Arizona Wildcats’ game. While they emerged from Sunday afternoon’s tilt against Southern California with their 18th victory, there was quite a lot that was open to criticism. There was a lot that was open to praise, too.
Ryan Kelapire wrote the full recap. Here are some other takeaways.
Navigating the hills and valleys is difficult
After the high of Arizona’s huge win over No. 8 UCLA on Friday, the question was how they would respond on Sunday. The answer was decidedly mixed.
“The slow start concerned me a little bit today,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “But I understand as a player that we were very, very pumped on Friday. I think that’s normal because they’re 18-to-20-year-old kids and I’m 40-something. So the maturity is just a little bit different, but I think they’re starting to understand the importance of it. And they recognize our weaknesses and how we didn’t respond.”
The Wildcats shot 38.9 percent in the opening quarter. Not great, but passable when they were holding the Women of Troy to just 26.7 percent. Had it not been for some really difficult shots by freshman Alissa Pili, USC wouldn’t have scored at all over the first 10 minutes.
Pili scored all eight of USC’s points in the opening quarter and their first two in the second. From there, her team took the offensive upperhand. USC shot 38.5 percent from the field including 4 of 6 from distance. Meanwhile, they held Arizona to 28.6 percent.
“Wasn’t the prettiest game,” Barnes said. “First half was very bad. We looked like the team that played the triple overtime, they didn’t.”
Of all the things that weren’t pretty in the loss, the 3-point defense in the second and third quarters were probably the worst.
The very young, very shorthanded Women of Troy won the second and third quarters just two days after falling to Arizona State in triple overtime. On the other end, USC held Arizona to 28.6 percent shooting in the second quarter.
The Wildcats responded on offense in the third, but they allowed their opponent to go 8 for 16 from the field and hit three of their five 3-point shots. When they went into the final quarter, Arizona was leading by just four despite shooting 42 percent from the field over the first 30 minutes.
Why? Because they let USC hit 43.8 percent of their 3-point shots. The Women of Troy were shooting just 27.4 percent from 3 coming into Sunday’s game. Twenty-one of their 57 points came from beyond the arc against the Wildcats. All of those came in the second and third quarters.
Over her first season-and-a-half at Arizona, there have definitely been times when Aari McDonald’s play has seemed a bit out of control. That is bound to lead to turnovers and it has.
Things were different this weekend. McDonald did a terrific job playing under control and the turnovers almost vanished.
“I thought what she’s doing a really good job of also is going to the basket under control,” Barnes said. “Not turning the ball over. Jump stopping and finding shooters. And now the shooters are hitting shots, so I think that she becomes more difficult to guard.”
For the second straight game, McDonald had just two turnovers. Meanwhile, she had eight assists and six steals on Sunday. As Barnes noted, it was about McDonald doing the right thing, but it was also about her teammates shooting and hitting those shots.
At her best this season, McDonald had just one turnover against Oregon. The issue was that she followed that game up with three straight games with five or more. She has only had eight games this season with more assists than turnovers and she’s averaging just 0.95 assists to each turnover. Over the last two games, that number was 2.25 assists per turnover.
“I’m impressed with that,” Barnes said. “Because she handles the ball and she’s a ball-handler every set we have pretty much. So really good. As much as she’s a catalyst on offense to only have two turnovers is huge.”
Last year, McDonald had a 1.23 assists per turnover. Improving that assist-to-turnover ratio—at least getting it back up to last year’s numbers—is important to her coach, her team and her future.
“That’s remarkable, but that’s what she has to do to be at the next level,” Barnes said. “So for her to be one of the best and just continue to get better, that was an area that she had to address and she’s done that. And she has to continue to do that because it makes a difference in our team because now we’re positive assist-to-turnover ratio. That’s a very important stat for us.”
Some things matter more than others
That assist-to-turnover ratio is just one of the things that really matters to Barnes. She made clear after the Oregon and Oregon State losses that her team could not continue to rebound the ball so poorly if they wanted to beat top teams, especially on the defensive end.
“For my philosophy, I don’t care about offensive rebounds,” Barnes said. “I care about defensive rebounds. I care about assist-to-turnover ratio. I care about the turnovers that we force.... Those are stats that are important to me.”
Her fix for defensive rebounding was old-fashioned: box out or run. It worked.
The Wildcats have won the battles of the boards in two of the three games since then. Although they lost that aspect of the game in their victory over UCLA, they drastically closed the margin. In Westwood, the Bruins won the rebounding contest 47-33. In Tucson, the margin was a more manageable 37-31.
Arizona increased their rebounding edge over USC by three boards in the second victory—largely due to Cate Reese grabbing 17 rebounds all on her own—but the biggest change came in their second win over Arizona State. The Sun Devils had a 47-41 advantage when the two teams met in Tempe at the end of December. A month later, the Wildcats won that aspect of the game 38-35.
Everyone is making a concerted effort to grab boards. Reese had her 17 in just under 34 minutes. A rebound every two minutes isn’t bad at all.
What’s better? Eight rebounds in 12 minutes, or one rebound every 90 seconds. That’s what 6-foot-5 sophomore post Semaj Smith did.
Smith averages 15.5 minutes and 4.5 rebounds in 21 appearances this season. In other words, she’s been good for a rebound every 3.4 minutes she spends on the court. That’s slightly better than Reese, the team’s leading rebounder, who corrals a board every 3.5 minutes.
“Semaj was incredible from the bench,” Barnes said, adding that matchups and the hot hands of the other posts kept her from playing Smith more. “Semaj was controlling the boards in her limited minutes. Twelve minutes and eight rebounds is remarkable, and she continues to be one of our best rebounders.”
Dominique McBryde carries them home
One of the hot hands that kept Smith out of the lineup was senior forward Dominique McBryde who didn’t get to play against USC in Los Angeles. After, getting hurt against Monmouth at the beginning of December, she missed six games with an ankle injury, including the two games in Los Angeles. Smith started in her stead.
Even before her injury, McBryde was rarely an offensive threat for the Wildcats. Her season high was nine points against Prairie View A&M on Nov. 20. Prior to Sunday, she averaged just 4.4 points in about 24 minutes per game. Last season, she averaged 7.1 ppg and only scored in double digits in 11 of Arizona’s 37 games.
Both Barnes and McBryde’s teammates have made it clear that her value goes beyond scoring. Her value on defense and as a leader on the floor are beyond question.
“Coach Adia says all the time (that) Dominique just kind of runs the offense and defense,” Reese said. “She really helps to put people in their place when they could be not in the right position. And she really does a great job of that. She knows her stuff.”
Still, having more scoring options really helps McDonald individually and the Wildcats as a team. Being forced to account for three or more players instead of keying in on McDonald is naturally going to cause additional problems for the defense.
Having other shooters willing to score the ball keeps the defense from all collapsing on McDonald or staying in a zone for large chunks of the game. At times in the past, she would give up the ball only to have her teammates hesitate to take shots. The defense would close on them, then they would pass it back to McDonald late in the shot clock. She had to make something happen.
As with Sam Thomas against UCLA, McBryde’s success in the fourth quarter demonstrated how the Wildcats are overcoming the “let Aari do it” mentality. When USC closed the Arizona lead to four points on Kayla Overbeck’s layup early in the fourth quarter, it was time for someone to respond. Instead of waiting for McDonald to do it, McBryde stepped up.
McBryde only had four points when the final 10 minutes rolled around. In many games, that’s all she would have when the final buzzer sounded, too. She didn’t do that on Sunday.
It was McBryde who countered the Overbeck layup with a 3-point shot that pushed the lead to seven. Pili cut it to five, and McBryde responded again. Back up to seven.
McBryde went 4 for 5 in the final quarter and notched 10 of her 14 points. In addition to her one missed field goal, she missed one foul shot. Driving to the basket, shooting 3s, getting put-backs, earning trips to the charity stripe. You name it, she found a way to score it.
“I feel like she can play like this every game,” Barnes said. “And what I love about our team right now is last game it was Sam, this game it’s Dominique. So different people are stepping up in different ways.”
The Wildcats will need all of those people to step up in every way possible next week. They will set off for the state of Oregon to face the Ducks on Friday and the Beavers on Sunday. They have proven that they can beat a top-10 team. Can they do it on the road?