The Pac-12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge offers a lot of opportunities for the Arizona Wildcats. They will play a marquee game in Las Vegas. It will be aired on ESPN. It will be against a Texas team that is ranked eleventh in the country. And it will give Arizona women’s basketball a chance to do what they seem to have to do every year: disprove the doubters.
It’s not the first time that a game against Texas offered that to the Wildcats.
In Nov. 2019, Arizona was climbing the ladder. The team was coming off their WNIT Championship season and had one of the best players in the country, but they still weren’t getting attention or respect.
Even after 44 points from Aari McDonald helped knock Texas from the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in 77 weeks, the Wildcats found themselves on the outside looking in. One AP voter even admitted to Jason Barr of KGUN9 that leaving the team off her ballot was an “oversight” because she “lost track” of Arizona when it came time to cast her vote hat week.
When told about the voter’s words in Nov. 2019, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes laughed.
“I think we are an oversight and I think that’s awesome because an oversight is going to come and punch some people in the mouth,” Barnes said that day.
Still, Barnes thinks that win in Austin was the beginning of getting the Wildcats the kind of attention that they regularly garner today. And they have punched people in the mouth ever since.
“I think that was a statement game that woke up all the people in the country that didn’t know anything about Arizona, that started to put us on the map,” Barnes said. “And since then, we’ve earned our stripes and we are on the map and we’re a good team, but that was kind of the beginning of that.”
Arizona would eventually get into the polls that year. They have been there ever since, but just barely. The Wildcats came into this season after coming up just short in the national title game last year. Several AP voters left them off their preseason ballots, leaving the team on the fringe of the poll at No. 22 to start the season. The Pac-12 coaches and media projected that they would finish fifth in the league.
The Wildcats are now ranked No. 4 by the AP and No. 8 in the USA TODAY Sports/WBCA poll. They are No. 8 according to the NET. ESPN’s Charlie Creme is projecting a No. 1 seed for them in the tournament. Her Hoop Stats has the team at No. 9 according to the stats service’s analytics-based rankings.
Arizona is 10-0 with two wins from the NET’s first quadrant, two wins against quad two, three quad three wins, and three quad four wins. In other words, even though they don’t have the toughest schedule in Division I, they also aren’t just beating the bottomfeeders. Almost half of their games have come against teams in the top two quadrants.
Still, there are those who demand to “see more." If beating Texas is the more that outsiders need to see, what will it take for Arizona to pull it off?
Taking care of the basketball will be first on the list. The Longhorns are forcing their opponents into 25.6 turnovers per game this season. The Wildcats average 15.0 giveaways per contest, and they have really struggled against the better teams on their schedule—especially the teams that apply pressure.
In their first test of the year, Arizona turned the ball over 17 times against Louisville in a game the Wildcats won in overtime. Two weeks later, they gave the ball away a whopping 25 times against an aggressive Vanderbilt defense. The Wildcats snuck out with a two-point victory over the Commodores on a last-second shot by Shaina Pellington. A day later, DePaul forced Arizona into 17 again in a 75-68 Wildcats win.
Even in games that they have won comfortably, the Wildcats have sometimes given the ball away far too often for Barnes’ tastes. In an 80-44 rout of Rutgers, Arizona turned the ball over 18 times. Avoiding the turnover bug was one of Barnes’ keys to defeating Texas.
“One of the biggest things in the game is to take care of the basketball,” Barnes said. “Not let their pressure affect us.”
One of the team’s captains has an idea of what it will take to do that. Part of it is physical, but the mental part of the game will also be crucial.
“You have to play 40 minutes of great basketball,” senior wing Sam Thomas said. “They’re not going to give up. Their defense is just like ours. Up in you. Aggressive. So I think just coming out, we have to stay composed, be ready for anything. And just play 40 minutes of great defense because it’s going to be a tough battle, but we’re ready.”
Playing great defense will require guarding the Longhorns off the dribble and not letting them get the Wildcats in rotation, according to Barnes. That’s her second key to the game.
The third is about playing “Arizona basketball.”
“If we play Arizona basketball, we have a really good chance to win,” Barnes said. “But we’re both very defensive-oriented teams that put a lot of pressure, get up and press. So it’s going to be who handles whose pressure the best.”
With the losses by other teams, a win could mean that the Wildcats climb to second or third in the AP poll. Even just two years ago, no one would have guessed that this was what the future held. Barnes and her team have been showing the doubters each season. Maybe this time they will believe it.
Texas Longhorns (7-1) vs. Arizona Wildcats (10-0)
When and where
The game will be held on Sunday, Dec. 19 in T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. Tipoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. MST.
How to watch
The game will be aired on ESPN.
How to listen
Arizona is ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press, No. 8 by the WBCA, and No. 8 by the NET. Texas is ranked No. 11 by the Associated Press, No. 12 by the WBCA, and No. 5 by the NET.
“It’s going to be a hard-fought game and it’s going to be a really aggressive game. It’s gonna be, I anticipate, a low-scoring game that’s extremely physical, but it’s gonna be fun. These are the games we wait for. And this is what I think defines you and it also exploits your weaknesses. So I’m excited. And we’re playing it on neutral grounds, which makes it even harder. And I’m excited to see where we’re at and how we’re going to respond right before Christmas, which is also another hard time to play.”
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