Life came at the Arizona State Sun Devils fast—or at least the Arizona Wildcats did. Not long ago, ASU could depend on their rivalry games as guaranteed season sweeps. These days, they’re hoping not to get swept for the second straight year.
Arizona has won four of the last five games in the series. The Wildcats have not lost to the Sun Devils since the two teams met in Tempe back in February of 2019. Prior to the 2018-19 season, Arizona had lost eight straight to its rival up North and the losses weren’t pretty.
Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes may not engage in the use of dismissive epithets for that team up North. No “Scum Devils” for her. She’ll leave that kind of thing to them, she said. But she does not hesitate to state the obvious.
“We’re a better team right now,” Barnes said. “We should win the game. If we don’t then we’re not doing what we need to do. I think that ASU’s always good. I think a rival’s always good. But there’s certain games where you can lose them, but then you’re not really that good. So I think, for us, if we want to make noise in the tournament, if we want to be able to do those things, we have to be able to win the games we’re supposed to. And I mean, we should win that game. We’re supposed to.”
The Wildcats and Sun Devils do have one thing in common: offensive struggles. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they are capable of having big offensive nights. They are just inconsistent—and they have fallen back into that old habit of relying far too heavily on Aari McDonald.
McDonald averages 18.8 points per game overall. Against conference foes, she has scored 19.4 PPG. Only Cate Reese joins her in scoring at least 10 points per game.
The supporting cast in led by Reese and Sam Thomas, but both of them are scoring at or near career lows. Thomas’ 7.8 PPG are almost two points lower than the 9.5 PPG she scored last year, and she has not averaged double digits since her freshman year when she scored 10.2 PPG.
Reese’s 11.9 PPG are just a hair above the 11.8 she averaged as a freshman but have dropped by almost two points per game compared to last season. Even Helena Pueyo’s scoring has been nearly cut in half compared to last year.
At least Arizona knows that those players have the ability to score, though. Arizona State has more intrinsic issues. The Sun Devils average just 54.3 points per game compared to 68.1 for the Wildcats.
“If you look at their personnel, every other team has really a go-to player or a star,” Barnes said. “And I think ASU traditionally really hasn’t had one go-to player. I think they’ve had some injuries, and just think they have a tough time scoring. And you know, if you look at Taya Hanson or if you’ve known her from the past, she wasn’t like a scorer. I think she’s turned into that, but I don’t think she’s innately a scorer. So when she’s having to be their main scorer, I think it’s challenging. But I think you just need multiple weapons, just like us. We don’t do well when just Aari’s our only scorer, and Aari’s an All-American.”
Hanson is the leading scorer for the Sun Devils at 12.6 PPG. Jaddan Simmons is their other double-digit scorer at 10.7 PPG.
ASU is a good defensive team, but they also lag behind Arizona on that end of the floor. The Sun Devils give up 57.3 points per game. The Wildcats’ opponents average 56.1.
Those differences are not merely a matter of pace, either. Arizona scores 97.8 points per 100 possessions according to stats site Her Hoop Stats. ASU stands at 84. The Wildcats allow their opponents to score 80.3 points per 100 possessions. That is well below the 89 points per 100 possessions the Sun Devils allow.
Whether adjusted for pace or not, ASU has a negative scoring margin. They allow their opponents to outscore them by 3.1 points per game and 5.0 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, Arizona outscores opponents by 12 points per game and 17 points per 100 possessions.
The Wildcats need to do more than just win, though. After poor shooting against both California and Stanford, they need to put together a solid 40-minute game with good offense against ASU.
Barnes says that she has given “zero thought” to changing the rotation in favor of more shooting because this is the lineup that got them to No. 9 in the nation and No. 2 in the conference. She is opposed to swapping out superior defenders for the possibility of more offense, but she does need players like Thomas, Pueyo, Reese and Trinity Baptiste to pick up more of the scoring load.
“Sometimes Trinity got like a short corner shot (against Stanford),” Barnes said. “We have to consistently hit those, because the drives to the basket aren’t there. We’re not being guarded at the 3-point line. So we have to hit consistently 15-footers and threes, because then if the defense comes out, then you could drive by and you don’t run right into the secondary defense.”
Making the shots is actually the second step, though. The first is just being willing to take them. There are no excuses and no magic wand the coaching staff can wave. It’s on the players now to trust themselves and their abilities.
“I won’t change anything because I think in big games you got to step up,” Barnes said. “That’s not something I’m doing. I think in big games you gotta hit shots, and I think you got to take them to make them. So we run the offense. There’s opportunities. I can’t go take the shots for people. So I think that they have to step up. I mean, this is the time of year in big games that stars step up. And I think that you can control your defense, you can control your effort, you control those things. I think that you have to have confidence. There is no reason why you shouldn’t be confident in the work that we put in.”
How to follow the action
- Date/Time: Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 at 12 p.m. MST
- Location: Desert Financial Arena in Tempe, Ariz.
- TV: Pac-12 Networks (Pac-12 Network, Pac-12 Arizona)
- Radio: Derrick Palmer will have the call on KTUC 1400 AM or online at TuneIn
- Stats: In-game stats are available on Arizona Live Stats
- Twitter: Follow us at @AZDesertSwarm. You can also follow our editor at @RKelapire and our reporter at @KimDoss71 for coverage during the game and throughout the season.