All-American candidate Aari McDonald did not play tonight at Utah because of a lower-leg injury, but 11th-ranked Arizona still had national coach of the year candidate Adia Barnes at the controls.
Barnes’ management of her lineup, Arizona’s defense for the most part and the play of senior reserve Lucia Alonso and junior standout Sam Thomas was too much for the Utes at the Huntsman Center at Salt Lake City. Arizona prevailed 85-69 to improve to 22-4 overall and 11-4 in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats have won four straight games and nine of their last 10 games. Their record in the pivotal month of February is 5-1. The best February record in program history is 6-1, achieved three different seasons, the last being 2002-03.
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Barnes said she is “confident” McDonald will return Sunday at Colorado.
“We’ll have Aari back probably,” she said. “I’m going to decide on that later. I’m confident in that.”
Alonso’s first-half play was a boost Barnes needed without McDonald. She achieved a season-high 12 points in 12 minutes to help the Wildcats to a 43-30 lead at halftime.
“I was proud of our fight,” Barnes said in the postgame radio show on KTUC (1400-AM). “I asked people to step up and I think everybody stepped up.”
Thomas, who finished with a career-high 31 points, was also significant from the start for Arizona. She had 11 points, five rebounds and a blocked shot in the first half. In the game, she made 8 of 13 shots from the field and all 13 of her free throw attempts.
Her 13-of-13 mark at the line is a school record for most made while shooting 100 percent. Barnes and Kirsten Smith each held the previous record of 12 of 12. Barnes did that in the 1997-98 season. Smith achieved it in 1983-84.
“(Thomas) was aggressive,” Barnes said. “She knew she had to step up and I think she did an incredible job.”
She then paused and said, “Incredible job” for emphasis.
The same description goes for Alonso, who finished with 14 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field in the game.
“She just came out confident looking for her shot,” Barnes said. “She has experience.”
Arizona led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter before an 8-0 run by Utah (12-14, 5-10) cut the lead to 52-43 with 3:51 remaining in the period.
Brynna Maxwell had 11 of her 22 points in the third quarter to lead Utah’s surge. She made both of her 3-point attempts and converted all five of her free throw attempts in the third quarter.
Helena Pueyo, who started in McDonald’s place, came alive with two 3-pointers in the third quarter after going scoreless in the first half.
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Arizona went into the fourth quarter with a 62-52 lead, and Utah trimmed the lead to seven points with 7:15 left in regulation on two free throws by Dru Gylten.
That’s when Thomas and Dominique McBryde took over.
They led a 13-0 run to close the door on the Utes. McBryde had five points and Thomas four to account for the first nine points of that run.
Taking advantage of Utah fouling into the bonus with 5:32 left in the fourth quarter, two free throws by Alonso and Cate Reese increased the lead to 80-60 with 4:29 left.
Reese finished with 11 points, six rebounds and three steals. McBryde had 12 points and two steals.
“I’m glad with the way we came out,” Barnes said. “I thought everybody had a good game. Lucia had 14 and when we have one, two, three and four players score in double-digits without Aari — that’s a really good win for us.”
Utah went scoreless for more than 5 minutes before Kiana Moore made a 3-pointer with 2:05 left. By that time, Arizona already had its sights on potentially its second road sweep of the season after achieving that against the Washington schools earlier this season — a feat that had not been done since the 2010-11 season.
After playing at Colorado on Sunday, the Wildcats then close out the regular season with games against Stanford and California at McKale Center next weekend.
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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.