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Wildcats played ‘Arizona defense’ and learned from losses in sweep of Oregon, OSU

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

When the Arizona Wildcats fell into an early 11-2 hole against Oregon State on Sunday, it felt reminiscent of the Cal loss last season.

If you remember, Arizona was coming off a huge upset of No. 4 Stanford and came out flat against the last-place Golden Bears two days later, falling 55-54 in McKale Center. It was a stunner that spoiled Arizona’s Senior Day. Evidently, it also served as a learning lesson.

The Wildcats were able to avoid a similar letdown Sunday, building off their big win over No. 10 Oregon by blowing out the Beavers, 67-51.

“I think that’s a maturity thing and I think when you get experience in certain situations you learn from them and you grow,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “So we learned last year and we grew, and I think that we also learned some tough lessons this year. We’ve gotten better through the adversity. We got our butts kicked by Stanford. And then when we went and lost in overtime against a good Washington State team, we came back. To be able to beat Oregon, then Oregon State at home, it’s really good. I think because they’re both really good teams and they’re both different.”

Oregon State slowed the pace and forced the Wildcats to execute in the halfcourt, almost like Stanford did this season when they stymied Arizona’s offense.

This time, however, the Wildcats knew how to attack. They shot a season-best 53% from 3, picking their spots nicely. Helena Pueyo, who Barnes has challenged to be more aggressive, went 4 for 4.

“We weathered the storm and we got to action that we wanted to and not take the shots that Oregon State wanted us to,” Barnes said. “I thought that’s a maturity (thing). So we’ve gotten better because two weeks ago we would have lost.

“But I think we’ve gotten better be patient at working the ball the other side. We’re passing up open shots but you’re open for a reason. So now it’s my job for us to work on them and do skill work and shoot the ball and get confidence and get better. But I think the players did such a good job of being patient, running the offense, executing. It’s not stuff we did in the Stanford game. In the Stanford game, we were super stagnant. I think we’re just getting better, but we’re not where we need to be. Like at all. But as long as we’re improving every week, we’re finding different ways to win,. It’s hard to win games like this.”

Wildcats are back to playing ‘Arizona defense’

While Arizona’s offense has smoothened, its defense is still its calling card. Over the last four games, the Wildcats have posted a defensive rating of 69.1. That would rank fourth in the country if extrapolated over an entire season.

Small sample size, yes, but it’s not like it’s come against cupcakes. Three of Arizona’s four opponents—Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State—have been ranked at some point this season.

Oregon has one of the best offenses in the country and Arizona them to 41 points, their lowest scoring output since 2016-17.

“As Adia would say, that’s just Arizona defense,” said freshman post Lauren Ware, who has eight blocks over the last four games. “She really harps that on us. In the beginning I would say we weren’t really playing Arizona basketball or defense. But now that we’ve been working on it in practice and stuff and just coming together as a team, I think that our defense and our pressure has just been amazing and that’s what...really kind of carried us through these past couple games. So we’re just gonna keep doing that. It also just helps us on offense as well. When we get stops, we’re pushing in transition, getting a lot of transition buckets.”

Enrolling early is “tremendous experience” for Madi Conner

Assuming she passes her physical and COVID-19 protocol, Barnes said early enrollee Madi Conner could start practicing with the Wildcats as soon as Tuesday.

The four-star guard is known for her 3-point shooting, an area Arizona could use some help, but getting her playing time isn’t the priority this season.

“First, obviously she just came from high school, so she’s got to learn the system,” Barnes said. “I wanted her to get the experience. It isn’t about her going on the floor right away. It’s about her going against some really good players in practice every day, learning our system. It’s a free year for her, so she just has a chance to travel with us, get better, continue to work on her game.

“I mean, that’s tremendous experience. She won’t be like a freshman next year. And if she can possibly help us, that’s a plus. But she’s a high school kid coming during a season, so I don’t expect her to come in and start playing significant minutes, obviously. That’s not the goal. The goal is for her to get better, improve and hopefully maybe in a month we can use her. But regardless of if we can or can’t, she’s still getting better earlier.”

In addition to being a sharpshooter, Barnes described Conner with words like “smart”, “competitive”, “feisty” and “tough.”

Arizona controls its own destiny

Stanford was upset by Colorado on Sunday, leaving the Wildcats just one game behind the first-place Cardinal.

UA and Stanford are still scheduled to play again this season in Santa Cruz, meaning the Wildcats control their own destiny. If they win out, they are Pac-12 champions. (Remember, there are no tiebreakers for regular-season titles.)