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Arizona women’s basketball notes: On avenging the Cal loss, a dynamic defensive duo, and a must-win game?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 10 Women’s Oregon State at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No matter who the Arizona Wildcats face Friday in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals, it will make for good TV.

Scenario one: a third tilt against 5-seed ASU, their in-state rival.

Scenario two: a rematch with 12-seed Cal, the team that just handed 4-seed Arizona a stunning loss on Sunday.

The Wildcats have no say in what happens, but they know which matchup they prefer.

“It doesn’t matter who we play, we just have to play our game on Friday... but we definitely want Cal,” said point guard Aari McDonald. “Payback.”

At the same time, the Wildcats insist they have moved on from that loss. That doesn’t mean it was easy to accept.

Arizona coach Adia Barnes said it was one of the toughest moments of her coaching career. Not only did the Wildcats miss an opportunity to jump into the Top 10 and take another step forward as a program, they showed a side of themselves that Barnes didn’t think they had.

“I was never even concerned about a letdown because we haven’t done that,” she said. “So I think it was just a surprise and a disappointment on senior night. So just now we’re over that. We did have some learning time. We spent 45 minutes in the locker room talking about things and how to correct that. But I mean, looking back, are we disappointed? Yeah, for sure. But I’d rather lose on Sunday than lose moving forward because we can’t lose moving forward. And I think we had a reality check. There was no excuses.”

McDonald, who is still nursing a left leg injury, noticed more focus and intensity from her teammates in practice this week. The Wildcats placed extra emphasis on rebounding after Cal outworked them for 14 offensive boards, including one that led to the game-winning putback in overtime.

“They were definitely going hard after film,” McDonald said. “We just gotta bounce back.”

By losing to Cal, the Wildcats also put themselves on the border of hosting the NCAA Tournament, checking in at No. 14 in the selection committee’s latest rankings. It adds even more intrigue to their Pac-12 Tournament opener, as a loss could boot them out of the Top 16.

Barnes dismissed the idea that it’s a must-win game, especially if ASU is the opponent, as beating a ranked team three times in one season “is hard.”

She is, however, placing an importance on Arizona recapturing the resiliency it showed before its letdown vs. Cal.

“We turned the chapter, it’s a new season. ... it’s time to do something special,” she said. “The stakes are higher, the pressure is a little bit more, the games feel a little bit different, but that’s what we’re made for. We’ve been doing it. We did it all last year in the WNIT, so it’s no different. Now’s the fun times. This is when all-stars are made.”

Speaking of all-stars...

For the first time ever, the Wildcats landed two players on the All-Pac-12 Defensive Team, with McDonald and fellow junior Sam Thomas earning the nomination.

Better yet, McDonald was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in steals per game (2.5). She joins Ify Ibekwe (2011) as the only other Wildcat to earn that award.

“It felt good, but at the same time I’ve been doing this since I’ve been playing basketball, just locking up, and that’s something I take pride in,” McDonald said. “But I’m definitely happy that my defensive skills have gotten recognition.”

That McDonald also leads the conference in scoring (20.3 PPG) is what makes her such a transcendent player.

“It says a lot about just her and the work she’s put in because she’s really evolved as a player on both ends,” Barnes said.

And when you put a staunch defender like Thomas next to her, it is no surprise that the Wildcats boast the 13th-most efficient defense in the country. The long-limbed forward is the only player in the Pac-12 with 40 blocks and steals despite being generously listed at 6-feet tall.

“So I think you’re surprised at some of the defensive plays (she makes),” Barnes said. “You’re like, ‘wow, how’d she do that?’ But she’s just so smart, so consistent, she’s never out of position. She’s not reaching for balls. She’s not reactive going for 10 steals, misses seven and gets three. She’s just solid and keeps people in front of her. Her dad was a coach, all her siblings play college basketball, so she’s smart.”

And McDonald is happy her running mate is finally getting recognized for it. Thomas was snubbed from the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team last season despite tallying 50 blocks and 60 steals.

“You don’t hear about two players on the same team at the same time creating havoc on the defensive end,” McDonald said. “Just credit to Sam. She takes pride in it, and although she may not be having a good game offensively, I know that defensively she has my back and I can trust her.”

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