Arizona took arguably the best team in the nation — coming off a Final Four appearance last season — to the limit in front of one of the largest regular-season crowds in history at McKale Center today.
The 18th-ranked Wildcats showed how far they have come in Adia Barnes’ four years as coach. They also showed the remaining work (rebounding and size inside?) needed to get over that treacherous mountain to beating a highly-ranked opponent.
At least it appears that Mount Everest can be conquered.
No. 2 Oregon, behind Sabrina Ionescu’s 22nd career triple-double, outlasted No. 18 Arizona 71-64 in front of 7,680 fans at McKale Center.
“They are a really good basketball team,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves told reporters about Arizona after the game. “I think everybody knows that. … That’s how hard it is in this conference. They played well this weekend and lost twice at home. It’s tough.”
The Wildcats (13-3, 2-3) are now 0-27 against top 5 teams in the arena and 0-50 overall against such teams. They have lost 52 consecutive games to teams in the top 10. Those are just numbers that show how futile Arizona has been in the past.
The here and now: Barnes’ team has played three top 10 teams consecutively (UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon) and have competed with each into the second half — staying within one possession of the Beavers and Ducks in the last seconds — and came away without a win.
Oregon coach Kelly Graves on @ArizonaWBB: “They are a really good basketball team. I think everybody knows that. … That’s how hard it is in this conference. They played well this weekend and lost twice at home. It’s tough.”
(He really didn’t like talking about the UA 😂) pic.twitter.com/sceHEQhjbJ
But the Wildcats have won over opposing coaches and the respect of the fans. They are not lovable losers. They are underdogs who have captured the attention and support of fans. The fans have bought stock into this team, not only with their increased ticket purchases, but with their will.
“I think Tucson is embracing our team,” Barnes said. “I think it shows how much this program has changed. We’re a fun team to watch. We play hard, we play with heart. That’s our identity.
“We’re getting there. We’re not there yet but we’re getting there. I think everybody is supporting that.”
Here’s Aari McDonald (25 points) and Lucia Alonso (8 points) on @ArizonaWBB’s 71-64 loss to No. 2 Oregon.
Aari explained why she was shooting jumpers in McKale at 6:45 this morning. pic.twitter.com/jvsRT5wOsv
Ionescu, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, made a jumper with 1:39 left in regulation to put Oregon ahead 65-59. Arizona called timeout to set up its half-court execution and Aari McDonald drilled a 3-pointer. McDonald led all scorers with 25 points.
Minyon Moore, who had only three points previously, drove the baseline for the shot to put Oregon ahead 67-62 with 1:02 left. Sam Thomas made two free throws with 38.8 seconds remaining, prompting Oregon to call a timeout.
Ionescu then made four free throws down the stretch, sandwiched around Arizona’s 15th turnover in the game, to secure the victory for the Ducks (13-2, 3-1).
Oregon established control inside from the start with its 6-foot-4 Twin Towers — Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard — with them combining for 25 points and 10 rebounds in the first half as the Ducks pulled out to a 35-26 lead.
Hebard finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds and Sabally 18 points and seven rebounds. Arizona was outrebounded 39-23. Cate Reese was limited to three rebounds to go with her 13 points. She is normally a strong rebounder with 13 double-doubles in her career but Oregon’s size seemed to wear her down.
Hebard was also difficult for Arizona center Semaj Smith to stop. Smith picked up her third foul by halftime.
“Ruthy is a handful one-on-one and we don’t have a true 5 (center),” Barnes said. “We’re not really big and athletic inside. … We can’t get by almost 20 on the boards or 17 — whatever it is — and win the game. If you would have told me we were going to lose by 17 on the boards, I would have said we were going to lose by 30 points.”
The production of Sabally and Hebard made up for Ionescu’s lack of scoring in the first half. She had two points on 1-of-5 shooting from the field at halftime but posted six rebounds and five assists.
To go along with the improved rebounding effort, Barnes would like to see her team become healthy down the stretch.
Dominique McBryde recently missed five weeks because of an ankle sprain. She returned Friday against Oregon State but in that same game, freshman guard Helena Pueyo, one of Arizona’s best perimeter players, went down with an ankle injury.
She was not in uniform Sunday. She wore a boot on her right foot.
UA had almost 13,000 at McKale for both games this weekend. Although Wildcats lost to OSU & Oregon, fans may come out in higher numbers. Shows not only upward trajectory of program but sense @AdiaBarnes & her team have endeared themselves to Tucson. In it together. That's rare. pic.twitter.com/8bJSM2VzyH
McBryde is trying to get back in the flow. It was noticeable she is rusty with her five turnovers against Oregon, including an errant pass in Arizona’s second-to-last possession. Now, Barnes must wait for Pueyo to become healthy and then work her way back into the lineup.
“One of the toughest things for me is we’re not able to stay healthy as a team and compete against the best,” Barnes said. “Today, they played a zone the entire game. With Helena, I don’t think they can stay in a zone the entire game. Credit to them, their zone bothered us.
“The takeaway from this weekend is we’re not quite there. We are close but they are a better team. … Oregon’s better. They’ve been there before.”
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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.