LINK: FREE ARIZONA/NAU GALLERY
A lot has happened in the last 266 days and, sadly, a lot didn’t happen.
The University of Arizona beat NAU 76-63 Sunday afternoon in McKale Center to open up the 2020-21 season being played during unknown times with an uncertain future that followed a long uncertain and unforgiving past for many from within and from without the sporting world.
Arizona beat No. 4 Stanford 73-72 in overtime in McKale Center last February and then followed that up with a 55-54 loss to Cal only to beat Cal 86-73 in the Pac-12 tournament a few days later before losing to No. 3 Oregon the next day.
The game against Oregon was played on a Saturday night, March 6 to be exact, and that turned out to be the last game the Wildcats would play for the next 266 days because the NCAA announced a week later that the NCAA tournament was canceled.
— NCAA (@NCAA) March 12, 2020
Arizona finished the year ranked No. 12 with an excellent shot at hosting tournament games in a sold-out McKale Center. That was not to be. All attention turned to the first First-Team All-American in program history in junior guard Aari McDonald. Would she stay for her senior year?
She answered that question on March 29 and McKale Center night never be the same.
— Aari McDonald (@AariMcdonald) March 29, 2020
With McDonald on board, and a more complete team led by coach Adia Barnes, the program entered this winter ranked No. 7 with McDonald holding onto multiple preseason recognitions including Preseason All-American with Cate Reese and Sam Thomas joining in with Preseason Pac-12 recognitions.
But 266 days is still 266 days and the team came out “flat” Sunday against NAU and the Lumberjacks took and early 8-5 lead and the Wildcats struggled to an 18-15 lead after one quarter and only 30-24 at the half.
Former Coconino High School and Pima standout JJ Nakai had 10 of her team-high 17 points in the half but the Lumberjacks had no answer for Reese who entered the locker room with 15 of her game-high 21 points.
“I just want to be more consistent this year,” Reese said. “My teammates did a great job of finding me today.”
The Lumberjacks had no answer for Reese underneath and, even though NAU only lost the rebound battle 48-46 due to multiple transition misses, the team had little opportunity for put back shots due the size of the Wildcat interior and the Lumberjacks were often forced to reset their offense.
Still, Arizona struggled but that changed in the second half.
“Last year we had a lot of games to prepare and get our chemistry going,” Reese added. “I mean it’s this way for everyone so it’s not just us. We have to prepare this week. We have to focus in and be on point for the game.”
Barnes made quite a few adjustments at the half and the team came out with pressure defense and the Wildcats built an imposing 39-26 lead with 7:30 left in the third period.
“They just came out with more of a sense of urgency,” head coach Barnes said on her team. “I think the second half we were just a little more relaxed and also some of it was me. I’m playing a lot of different combinations. We have a lot of people and we have a lot more depth. In most games I’m not going to play 12 people.”
But playing 12 players turned out to be a luxury and it gave bench players valuable court time and multiple chances for adjustment especially for McDonald who finished with 18 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 6 steals despite an obvious slow start.
“Coming in second half I had to just relax,” McDonald said. “My shot started to fall towards the end. Cate was hot she couldn’t miss. Our points came from different areas. From different people.”
Arizona went on to build a 72-50 lead with 6:08 left in the game before mass substitutions brought the game to the 76-63 victory.
“The first game was very rusty but we haven’t played in 266 days so I have to keep that in the back of my mind,” Barnes added. “I’m just blessed the fact that we are able to play.”
Arizona will host No. 9 UCLA (1-0) this Friday with game time yet to be determined. The Bruins beat Cal State Fullerton 98-49 on Friday but a game against Pepperdine slated for today was postponed.
The Pepperdine situation is part of the ongoing battle with COVID measures and Arizona is at the forefront with no fans allowed and social distancing among staff and players alike.
“We’re not used to being that far apart from each other,” McDonald said. “People were definitely talking loud. You could hear everything. We just have to get used to it. This is not the normalcy we’re used to so definitely we have to make adjustments. We have to find energy and keep encouraging each other.”
Reese got to bang the victory drum after the game as the Player of the Game and she finished with her 16th double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds. McDonald added her 18, Trinity Baptiste had 12, Shaina Pellington finished with 11, Lauren Ware had 8 and Thomas had 6.
— Andy Morales (@AndyMorales8) November 29, 2020
For NAU, Nakai had her 17 and Jacey Bailey and Emily Rodabaugh scored 14 points each.
Nakai played most of the game and she left the court with about a minute left. She was a First Team NJCAA All-American with the Aztecs and she scored 22 points in the Lumberjacks’ 79-75 victory over UNLV on Wednesday.
“I went to a (Pima) game a couple years ago and I watched her and I think she had 30 some points that game,” Barnes said on Nakai. “She’s a really good player. I really like her game. She was really hard for us to guard a lot of times. She played well. She came in here and had 17. Good player, I think NAU is a good team I think they’re coached well. They do a really good job over there and some of their actions kind of bothered us.”
The Lumberjacks will travel to play Eastern Washington (0-0) on Thursday. Oregon State canceled their game with Eastern Washington that was to be played on Friday.
LINK: JJ NAKAI SPOTLIGHT
LINK: POST GAME INTERVIEWS
LINK: UA/NAU BOX SCORE
Andy Morales was recognized by the AIA as the top high school reporter in 2014, he was awarded the Ray McNally Award in 2017, a 2019 AZ Education News award winner and he has been a youth, high school and college coach for over 30 years. He was the first in Arizona to write about high school beach volleyball and high school girls wrestling. His own children have won multiple state high school championships and were named to all-state teams. Competing in hockey, basketball, baseball and track & field in high school, his unique perspective can only be found here and on AZPreps365.com. Andy is the Southern Arizona voting member of the Ed Doherty Award, recognizing the top football player in Arizona, and he was named a Local Hero by the Tucson Weekly for 2016. Andy was named an Honorary Flowing Wells Caballero in 2019 and he was a member of the Amphi COVID-19 Blue Ribbon Committee and was given the Amphi Distinguished Service Award. Contact Andy Morales at email@example.com