Hard to believe but it has been 204 days since Arizona beat Northwestern 56-42 in front of a record-capacity crowd at McKale Center for the WNIT championship.
That’s 204 days we have had to wait to watch Aari McDonald play again. The wait is over with an exhibition today at 4 p.m. at McKale Center against Eastern New Mexico. The regular season starts Nov. 5 at home against North Dakota.
Arizona is more than only McDonald with the Wildcats returning 94 percent of their scoring from last year and boasting a heralded recruiting class with international talent. McDonald, however, is the catalyst. An honorable-mention All-American last season, she should be the leader coach Adia Barnes can rely on to get the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years, especially if last season’s 24-win effort is any indication.
McDonald, a 5-foot-6 electrifying junior point guard, finished last season as the nation’s third-leading scorer and the Pac-12’s leading scorer at 24.1 points per game. She comes into the 2019-20 season as the nation’s top returning scorer and the new Arizona single-season scoring record holder.
Some of McDonald’s accomplishments:
• Arizona single-season scoring record holder (890)
• AP and WBCA Honorable Mention All-American
• Became the first Wildcat since Davellyn Whyte (2012) to be named an All-American
• Pac-12 All-Defense
• Scored the fourth-most points in one season in Pac-12 history
• Only player since 2000 with 800 points, 200 rebounds, 150 assists and 90 steals in one season
• One of two players in Pac-12 history with 800 points and 150 assists in one season (Kelsey Plum, a Barnes recruit when Barnes was an assistant at Washington, is the other)
The other returners include an All-American in the making — sophomore forward Cate Reese, the program’s first McDonald’s All-American recruit. Reese averaged 11.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last year, which earned her Pac-12 All-Freshman honors. She led all Pac-12 freshmen in scoring and rebounding and also had the most double-doubles of all Pac-12 freshmen. During Arizona’s run to the WNIT championship, Reese averaged more than 14 points per game.
Defensive Sam Thomas, a junior forward, returns. She was the only player in the Pac-12 to average at least 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game last season. She can defend all positions. She was also Arizona’s third-leading scorer at 9.3 points per game and averaged double-figures in Pac-12 play. She became a threat from long distance last year, making 47 3-pointers, the second-most on the team.
Another solid defender, senior forward Tee Tee Starks, is back along with fellow seniors Lucia Alonso and Dominique McBryde.
Added to the senior class this season is Penn State graduate transfer Amari Carter, who will bolster the Wildcats’ backcourt. After only playing in one game during her freshman season due to injury, she went on to average more than 10 points per game over three seasons with the Nittany Lions, including 14.2 per game during her junior season last year. She is 34 points away from 1,000 for her career and will also be a 3-point threat for the Wildcats as she averages more than one made per game.
Sophomores Bryce Nixon, a guard, and Semaj Smith, a center, filled in their roles off the bench productively last season.
The freshman newcomers other than Carter include players from Canada, Australia, Latvia, Spain, Turkey and Iceland.
G Shaina Pellington – Canada
G Tara Manumaleuga – Australia
G Mara Mote – Latvia
F Sevval Gul – Turkey
G Helena Pueyo – Spain
F Birna Benonysdottor – Iceland
Gul and Benonysdottor are each 6-foot-3 and will bolster the the frontline that includes Smith, who is 6-foot-6.
It will be interesting to see how Arizona’s fans respond to the success of Barnes’ program. The average attendance last season at McKale Center was 3,675.
The WNIT run captivated Tucson with the average attendance for the six games at 7,600, capped by the sellout crowd of 14,644 for the championship on April 6, breaking the Pac-12 attendance record.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.