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Sam Thomas makes a statement in Arizona’s season-opening win over CSUN

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four Semifinal-Arizona at Connecticut Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If anyone had any questions about the inclusion of Sam Thomas on the preseason watch list for the Naismith Trophy, her game had all the answers on Tuesday night. Thomas started her super senior season with two straight baskets to lead the way in the Wildcats’ 87-44 win over the Cal State Northridge Matadors.

The only thing better would be having Aari McDonald in McKale Center.

As it turned out, McDonald was there as one of the 6,154 fans who showed up early on a Tuesday evening. She surprised the team by showing up for their opening game. She was greeted with a huge ovation from the crowd when she was shown on the scoreboard as the PA announced that she would formally be inducted into the Arizona Ring of Honor in January 2022.

As for the players still playing in Wildcat uniforms, Thomas ended her night with 13 points in just 18 minutes. She went 5 for 7 from the field including 3 for 5 from the 3-point line.

“Usually for myself, I hit the first one, I feel pretty confident about the rest,” Thomas said. “So hitting that first little two, I felt really good. And then my teammates found me in transition. So it was kind of with the flow of the game.”

Thomas has started every game of her Arizona career. She has averaged 33.9 minutes per game. She hasn't been the most prolific scorer on the team, but she has made it impossible for head coach Adia Barnes to take her off the court over the past four years. The fruits of that labor appeared on Tuesday night as she became Arizona’s all-time leader in minutes played. She also tied the mark for most games started and most games played.

“It feels really good,” Thomas said. “Just to know that I’m still here, able to finally break some records. I guess that’s why I took my fifth year. Just kidding. But just to be a part of this program, make history with this program. I feel really honored.”

It wasn’t just the most experienced Wildcat making an impact, though. Arizona’s freshmen stepped up in their first regular-season opener. From Aaronette Vonleh’s smooth footwork and ability to finish around the basket to Madi Conner’s can’t-miss distance shooting, Arizona’s newest Wildcats made it clear that Barnes will have a difficult time keeping any of them off the floor.

Vonleh and Cate Reese tied for the game high with 14 points, but Vonleh did it in just under 14 minutes. Vonleh also led the team with six rebounds. Reese was just behind her with five.

Vonleh showed a great deal of agility and balance while battling in the paint to hit 7 of 8 shots. She doesn’t take full credit for that. It’s her parents and Mother Nature that deserve that honor.

“Genetics is a big part of it,” Vonleh said. “I’ve just always been naturally muscular and strong. And that definitely helps a lot with balance because I can power up and stay on my feet, and not be on the floor a lot.”

Along with grad transfer Ariyah Copeland, Vonleh gives the Wildcats the kind of strong post presence they haven’t had during the Barnes era.

“Having them really makes my life easier,” Thomas said. “I know that if I just throw the ball in, whether it’s a bad pass, I know they’re gonna go get it. And they’re really good scorers. They’re great finishers. If they miss, they’re getting the rebound and they’re putting it right back up. So I know it’s a guaranteed two points every time I throw the ball inside.”

The Wildcats also made it clear that their improved shooting the past two weeks hasn’t just been the result of playing exhibitions against a DII team and an NAIA team. Arizona hit 8 of 19 threes as a team on Tuesday. They shared the ball well, assisting on 27 of 34 made buckets, led by Shaina Pellington with five assists.

The home team controlled the paint. The Wildcats outscored the Matadors 44-14 inside and out-rebounded them 43-21.

There were signs of things that need to be worked on, especially with a game against No. 6 Louisville at the end of the week. The most glaring weaknesses were on defense where Arizona had trouble containing the Matadors’ quick guard, Jordyn Jackson.

Jackson was able to defeat her defender on several occasions and went 4-for-11 from the field. Her nine points tied Kayanna Spriggs for the CSUN high.

“We have to guard the ball better,” Barnes said. “We talk about guarding our yards so there’s an area that you have to guard and if the baskets here you can’t allow straight line drives. That’s not what we do. And we were doing that a lot today. And we talked a lot before the game, one of our goals was being disciplined on defense. So, discipline on defense isn’t...reaching in fouls, it’s not falling. We’re doing it, bailing them out. And it’s not going for reaches because when you go reach, you get off balance, you get beat.”

Arizona got beat on some defensive assignments as they worked with lineups and rotations. They didn’t get beat on the things that past Wildcat teams have struggled with: shooting, scoring, rebounding. Those are all improvements that fill Barnes with optimism.

“The fact that we’re rotating and sharing the ball offensively, we’re ahead of where we were last year at this time,” Barnes aid. “Now, I’m not saying we’re gonna go win the championship or guarantee the Final Four, but we have a chance to be a much better team on offense and on defense.”

If they can prove it against their next challenge, questions about their offensive prowess and their ability to overcome the loss of McDonald become largely moot. Louisville is waiting just around the corner.