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Can Arizona women’s basketball shock No. 5 Texas again?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 14 Women’s - San Diego at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A lot of people point to the 2019 WNIT title run as the turning point for Arizona women’s basketball. The huge crowds throughout the tournament and the win over Northwestern to cap it off put the program on the map, right?

Not really. Arizona won 24 games that season, completing a turnaround from the program that won just six the year before. Still, the Wildcats went into the 2019-20 season basically where they had always been.

They were outside the conversation. No one in the media outside of Tucson cared. The national media was still ignorant of the kind of talent Aari McDonald had and the strong role players head coach Adia Barnes had around her. The team was unranked and largely ignored. Barnes didn't even get the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award for the incredible turnaround in the program.

The real shift on the national stage came on Nov. 17, 2019 in Austin, Tex. The 22nd-ranked Texas Longhorns were the story going in. They weren’t at the top of their game, but the Longhorns had been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for 79 straight weeks. They had a dominant frontcourt of Joyner Holmes and Charli Collier. Senior guard Sug Sutton led the team with poise and defensive tenacity, averaging 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game. Besides, Texas was at home. Arizona couldn’t possibly compete.

Not only did the unranked Wildcats walk into the Erwin Center and compete. They dominated. McDonald had a school-record 44 points on the way to an 83-58 victory.

It wasn’t just McDonald, either. Sophomore Cate Reese added 17 points, making her and McDonald all the offense the Wildcats would need. The pair outscored the entire Longhorns’ team.

Barnes also credited both Reese and Dominique McBryde with the battle in the post.

“Without (Reese’s) post defense today, we don’t win,” Barnes said at the time. “I think her work and Dominique’s work in the post was phenomenal.”

The pollsters still weren’t impressed enough to rank them. Arizona did not climb into the poll for the first time since 2004 after that game. But it did soon after, with that game being a catalyst.

The Wildcats won’t be in the poll when the return game finally happens on Dec. 13, either. A young, inexperienced Arizona team came into the season unranked. At 7-2, the Wildcats have stayed there.

They will also come in as the heavy underdogs. Her Hoop Stats gives UT an 81.9 percent win probability in McKale Center and makes it an 11.2 favorite.

Massey Ratings has UT as its second-ranked team behind South Carolina but thinks this will be a much closer game. In this system, the most likely result is a 69-63 Texas win. Texas has a 64 percent win probability.

The two teams have played fairly comparable schedules. While Texas has played more lowly-ranked teams (which partially accounts for its 92 points per game), it has also played the highest-rated opponent either team has faced in Connecticut. It won that game. Massey Ratings has Arizona playing a slightly more difficult schedule (62 vs 68), but Texas winning all of its games makes up for what little difference there is in the strength of schedules.

What it all adds up to is that Arizona will walk onto the court expected to lose this game. The Wildcats will face a deeper Texas team. The Longhorns feature a roster of 13. Eleven of them average double-digit minutes, although senior DeYona Gaston and junior Aaliyah Moore have played in just one and five games, respectively.

Of the players who regularly play, three Longhorns average double figures in scoring and two others score in the neighborhood with just over nine points each. That is similar to Arizona, which has three double-digit scorers and another scoring just over nine points. A fifth Wildcat scores just over eight per game.

Senior forward Taylor Jones is one player the Wildcats will need to slow down. She leads Texas in both points (16.2 ppg) and rebounds (7.5 rpg).

The rebounds are a bigger problem for Arizona, which is only grabbing 36.1 rpg compared to 45 for UT. For a team that has more size than in years past, the fact that Arizona only outrebounds its opponents by three is a concern, especially as it takes a step up in competition.

On offense, the Longhorns shoot the long ball better than Arizona, but they aren’t spectacular from that distance. They hit just under 35 percent of their shots from 3. From 2, they’re connecting on 55.1 percent compared to Arizona’s 51.8 percent. They also like to use defense to create offense, similar to the Wildcats.

“Texas is really good in transition,” Barnes said. “Well, first of all, really good defensively. They like to turn you over and score in transition. Really good offensive rebounding. And they’re one of the few teams in the country that’s excellent in the mid-range game. And that’s really rare. If you look at most teams, you’re not allowed to take mid-range shots because it’s the lowest percentage shot in basketball. ou could take threes or layups. And they’re really good at mid-range. They take a lot of them, but they’re efficient.”

The Wildcats have waited four years to get their return game from Texas. Helena Pueyo is the only player who was on the roster when Arizona forced the national media to at least acknowledge the program. This Arizona team is trying to establish itself in a similar way. Can they do it?

“It’s been a long time to return, but happy we’re finally doing it because it’s going to be a good, exciting game,” Barnes said.


No. 5 Texas (10-0, 0-0 Big 12) @ Arizona Wildcats (7-2, 0-0 Pac-12)

When: Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023 at 7 p.m. MST

Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

TV: Pac-12 Network and Pac-12 Arizona

Stats: Arizona Live Stats

Radio: Listen on the web


How to follow along

Follow us on X (Twitter) @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live posts of women’s basketball games and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.