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Defense fuels Arizona in revenge win over Washington State

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Arizona struggled offensively but used a trademark defensive effort to get sweet revenge on Washington State.

The Wildcats shot 33 percent from the field, their second-worst mark of the season, but forced 19 turnovers and held the Cougars to 38 percent shooting in a 60-51 win on Friday in McKale Center.

With the win, Arizona (13-2, 11-2 Pac-12) remains tied for first place in the Pac-12 in the loss column with Stanford. The Wildcats have won four straight, their last loss coming on Jan. 10 against these Cougars in Pullman.

That was on their mind heading into Friday’s rematch.

“Obviously we wanted this revenge game back after Washington State kind of picked us apart in the first run, but in every game we just try and focus on our defense,” senior forward Sam Thomas said. “We like to be aggressive most of the time and press up. So I think it’s just different, teams don’t see that a lot. So I think that’s a benefit for us.”

Thomas, who head coach Adia Barnes continues to call the most underrated defender in the country, had a team-high five steals—one of three Wildcats with three or more takeaways, the others being Aari McDonald (3) and Helena Pueyo (4).

Thomas said the game plan was to put pressure on the Leger-Walker sisters. The WSU stars still combined for 30 points but also 12 turnovers and 11-of-27 shooting.

“I think (the key was) just using traps and trying to tip a little bit, reach a little bit, try and get the ball out of their hands and then put the ball in some other people’s hands who might not be as great of ballhandlers,” Thomas said. “And then try and get those steals from either their passes or off the dribble.”

Arizona had 15 points off turnovers, as well as 12 second-chance points and a healthy free throw margin (14-5) to help make up for its ice cold shooting. Cate Reese led Arizona with 17 points and Aari McDonald had 14 in her penultimate game in McKale Center but needed 21 shots to do it.

The Wildcats led 39-31 at the half after McDonald closed the second quarter with a buzzer-beating stepback 3. That lead was whittled down to 44-42 heading into the fourth, thanks to a brutal third quarter in which the Wildcats only scored five points.

Arizona quickly matched that total in the fourth quarter, starting the period on a 5-0 run after back-to-back layups by McDonald and Thomas. A jumper by Reese increased the lead to 53-43 with 4:32 left in the fourth.

The Cougars trimmed the deficit to seven when Charlisse Leger-Walker drained a 3, but by then it was too little too late. Only 13 seconds remained.

WSU shot 3 for 12 in the fourth quarter and had five turnovers.

“The key was just playing our style,” Barnes said. “I thought we had a brutal third quarter. The good thing about this game is when we weren’t scoring, they weren’t scoring either. ... So I think we continue to have some of these scoring lulls, but at least we’re keeping the opponents from scoring.”

The Wildcats got off to a slow start, what Barnes attributed to fatigue after beating Oregon on the road on Monday. McDonald spearheaded the offense early by scoring Arizona’s first seven points but the Wildcats trailed 19-18 at the end of first quarter.

They then outscored the Cougars 21-12 in the second to grab an eight-point lead at the break. Arizona came out cold out of the locker room, missing 14 of its 16 shots in the third quarter.

A jumper by Trinity Baptiste was UA’s lone field goal until Pueyo sank a spot-up 3 to end an 0 for 11 drought and put UA back up 44-38 with 1:54 left in the period. Back-to-back buckets by the Leger-Walker sisters cut that lead to 44-42 heading into the final quarter, which the Wildcats won 16-9.

“Washington State runs a lot of good offense,” Barnes said. “They spread you out, they have shooters on the perimeter, they’re tough to guard. It doesn’t look like it but they’re tough they move the ball well against our own ball defense. I think they’re really good. They’re definitely a tournament team.”

Arizona wraps up its home schedule on Sunday against Washington. The first matchup between the two schools was cancelled due to COVID-19 issues within the UW program.

Barnes doubts Arizona will be able to make up that game or the three others that they had cancelled due to COVID.

“I don’t know if I want to be playing multiple weeks of three games a week,” she said. “So I’m not confident that’s gonna happen.”

Family in the building

With this being Senior Week, the UA is allowing the families of the upperclassmen to attend Friday and Sunday’s games in person. They were seated in the stands opposite of Arizona’s bench.

Thomas jokingly apologized for anything her father may have said during the game.

“Everyone heard him on the court, I’m pretty sure,” she laughed. “But I’m used to it. I listen to him. When I want to block him out, I can. But I feel bad for everyone else to listen to him the whole 40 minutes.”

On a serious note, Thomas was grateful to have him and the rest of her immediate family in attendance for what could be her final games in McKale Center. She has not decided if she will return next season.

“It’s definitely surreal,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t feel like it because these four years have gone by so fast. I feel like I have four more years and I’m just a freshman. But it was nice to have my family here for my weekend here in McKale. I mean, it’s rough not having fans here but at least I got to have my family here.”


  • Spanish freshman Marta Garcia was wheeling around on a scooter in pregame warmups. She recently suffered an ankle injury. Barnes said she will be out with another couple of games. She has only appeared in five this season.
  • McDonald and Reese were commemorated before the game for reaching 1,000 career points. McDonald has now scored in double figures in 81 straight games, the longest active streak in the nation.

Postgame interviews

Adia Barnes

Adia Barnes post WSU

Hear what Adia Barnes said after Arizona's 60-51 win over Washington State

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, February 12, 2021

Sam Thomas and Helena Pueyo

Sam Thomas and Helena Pueyo post WSU

Hear what Sam Thomas and Helena Pueyo said after Arizona's 60-51 win over Washington State

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, February 12, 2021