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Arizona relying too much on Aari McDonald as postseason nears

Arizona v Oregon Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

Adia Barnes figured the Arizona Wildcats would have enough depth this season to avoid resorting to Aari-ball. That is, handing the rock to their star point guard and having her take, or create, virtually every shot.

But as the postseason nears, the Wildcats have reverted to exactly that. On their Bay Area road trip, which pitted them against both the best and worst team in the Pac-12, McDonald hoisted 23.5 shots per game, almost seven more than her season average. She also had six of Arizona’s 14 assists.

The results weren’t pretty. The Wildcats shot 38 percent in a 59-50 win over last-place Cal and 32 percent in a 62-48 loss to first-place Stanford.

McDonald made 47 percent of her 23 shots at Cal and 33 percent of her 24 attempts at Stanford. Both percentages were better than Arizona’s team average, so it’s not like she was a drag on their efficiency. They needed her to score because no one else seemed to want to.

“A lot of them have to step up and be productive,” Barnes said after the Stanford loss. “I think that a lot of times we’re looking for Aari or Aari sometimes is taking some quick shots. We just can’t win that way. So I think there’s a combination of things. People have to be aggressive. And then when you’re aggressive, we gotta hit shots. I think Sam (Thomas) was hot. We kept looking for her in the first half. We’re gonna get Cate (Reese) a little bit more touches, which is hard because they’re bigger inside. We were trying, they were blocking our shots. It was hard for the posts.”

That’s because, outside of McDonald, Arizona’s backcourt lacks firepower.

Sixth woman Helena Pueyo and starting two-guard Bendu Yeaney are averaging under four points per game. Shaina Pellington, who was brought in from Oklahoma to be the point guard of the future, is averaging 6.2, but is a non-shooter, making just one of her 16 3s.

Yeaney is almost in the same boat, going 5 for 22 from behind the arc. She and Pellington both have more turnovers than assists, too.

Because they are not reliable 3-point threats, defenses sag off them, pack the paint and force McDonald and Arizona’s posts into tough shots...if they can even get them the ball at all.

Stanford, the kind of team Arizona will have to beat to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, has deployed that strategy to perfection in their wins over the Wildcats. They have held Cate Reese to 10 points in two games and kept McDonald, not the best shooter herself, away from the rim (and thus also the free throw line).

“[Aari] is super athletic, so you’re not gonna stop her, but she went 8 for 24 (from the field), 0 for 6 from 3,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said Monday. “I thought Anna (Wilson) did a fabulous job on her. [Aari] did hit her little pull-up but we were willing to live with that.”

The Wildcats were able to get McDonald some clean looks by running her off screens, and maybe that could be part of the solution moving forward. It moves her off the ball and forces someone else, often Pueyo, to initiate the offense.

“It gives us movement,” McDonald said. “It doesn’t make us stagnant where I have to hold the ball and just dribble. I draw a lot of attention, so if I don’t have a shot, my teammates are open.”

But what if they don’t take or make their open shots?

“Sometimes we do that and it works, but then sometimes we have a tough time executing when I do that, so it’s sometimes a Catch-22,” Barnes said. “I think Shaina gave good minutes, but it was really difficult to play Shaina and Bendu because then [Stanford] is just really heavy in the paint.”

Rarely-used guards like Madi Conner, Tara Manumaleuga and Mara Mote—who are a combined 23 for 50 (46%) from 3 in their careers—could create more balance, but Barnes has given “zero thought” about putting them in the rotation.

“I don’t think they’re ready to come in and defend like we need to defend,” she said.

Pueyo is the two-way threat Barnes is looking for, but she has a tendency to pass up open shots. It appeared she turned the corner when she swished four 3s against Oregon State, but she has only made two triples in the six games since then. Even more concerning: Pueyo has only taken seven during that span and has gone scoreless in three straight games.

“She’s shooting over 40 percent from 3, so she should be confident,” Barnes said. “I don’t know why there’s hesitation.”

Whatever the reason, it could cause Arizona’s demise in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have the 17th-best defensive efficiency in the country but just the 87th-best offense.*

Elite teams like UConn and Baylor, who are in Arizona’s projected bracket, are top 10 in both. So is Stanford.

“I think us hitting some more shots, minimizing a couple of our mental mistakes, like going under on shooters, that’s the difference in the game,” Barnes said. “So I think by cutting down those mental mistakes, we can play with anybody. I think we’re capable. I think we showed at periods we can beat [Stanford], but they’re really good. We have to play well. We can’t have a lot of mental mistakes and little lapses or lulls of five, six minutes without scoring. We’re not going to win that way.”

*stats via Her Hoop Stats