Arizona not only slayed its nemesis Oregon on Thursday but the 11th-ranked Wildcats also did it in front of a national television audience, their first regular-season game to be broadcast on ESPN.
Adia Barnes‘ team ended a 10-game losing streak to No. 10 Oregon, the standard-bearers of the Pac-12 in recent years, with a convincing 57-41 victory. Barnes is now 1-10 against the Ducks and coach Kelly Graves and has coached the Wildcats to a 5-3 record against top 10 competition dating to last January.
“From a national perspective, I think it was a good statement win,” Barnes said. “For us to bounce back from a tough loss on the road (against Washington State in overtime Sunday) and show character and not lose our confidence was really important for us.”
No fans were at McKale Center but millions watched worldwide on ESPN with UConn and WNBA legend and U.S. Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Lobo commenting on the game.
How that parlays into recruits taking notice of Arizona’s program remains to be seen, but it certainly helps the Wildcats’ image of gaining national relevance.
“Remember, this is my fifth year. Well, the first four years they had Sabrina (Ionescu). So it’s really hard to beat a team with Sabrina,” Barnes said of ending her losing streak to the Ducks. “Oregon has always killed us. But I think that today, I think our pressure and, you know, Oregon’s a young team. They’re very talented.
“They’re gonna be a great team. This was a bad day for Oregon. I know that. But I think that our defense really bothered them and forced them into that.”
Arizona’s fullcourt pressure defense again played a difference after allowing California only 33 points, the lowest output for a Pac-12 opponent, in its last outing at McKale two weeks ago.
Oregon (9-3, 7-3 Pac-12) had 23 turnovers and only 15 made field goals. The Ducks’ turnovers led to 26 points for Arizona (9-2, 7-2). Oregon shot only 32.6 percent from the field (making 15 of 46 shots). The Ducks were 3 of 11 from beyond the arc.
Oregon, which has lost three of its last four games, is still trying to find its stride with a young team attempting to make up for the loss of Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard (all of whom are in the WNBA).
“I’ve never had a team that looked that undisciplined and scared, ever, maybe since community college and even most of my community college teams could have put up 41,” said Graves, who coached at Big Bend (Wash.) Community College from 1989-92.
He then said with derision, “Thank God it was on national TV. That was good.”
“They’re a good team. They’ve got veterans, they’ve got grad transfers,” Graves went on to say about Arizona. “Aari McDonald’s in her fifth year. She’s a senior that’s going to go top five in the (WNBA) draft. I mean, they have a really good team.
“And they play really hard. So you know, like you said, she (Barnes) never has beaten us but now she has. They’ve got a good thing going. They’re right in the thick of it.”
Cate Reese and Aari McDonald set the tone from the very start with Reese making two baskets, including a 3-pointer, and McDonald nailing a 3 to give the Wildcats an 8-2 lead and they never trailed thereafter. They built that to a 17-2 lead and Oregon never came closer than eight points afterward.
McDonald finished with 16 points, increasing her streak of games scoring in double digits to 77 games, spanning her entire Arizona career. She also had four steals.
McDonald concurred with Graves saying she has “never seen Oregon play that flustered.”
“We controlled the game,” she said. “Everybody was locked in and everybody wanted this one really bad.”
Trinity Baptiste had seven of her 11 points in the first quarter when the Wildcats established control. She also had six rebounds and three assists.
Thomas finished with 10 points, six rebounds and four steals. She was the bang-the-drum player of the game for Arizona although she was the third-leading scorer. Thomas means much more to Barnes than points.
“She’s very underrated (nationally),” Barnes said. “For sure, she’s one of the most underrated defensive players. And she’s a really good offensive player. Sam is never going to go take 10 bad shots.
“For us, Sam plays the 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 (all the positions on the floor). She knows every position by heart. She’s our smartest player. She always defends the best player on the other team, their go-to player. She is so important. With her off the floor, we’re a different team.”
In the loss at Washington State on Sunday, Thomas had fouled out and watched helplessly when Charlisse Leger-Walker made the tying shot to get to overtime and the winning shot at the buzzer.
Oregon’s leading scorer Erin Boley, who averaged 12.5 points entering the game, was held scoreless by Thomas and Co. She attempted only one shot in 12 minutes.
The Wildcats ended the first quarter with a 22-7 lead after Baptiste nailed a 3-pointer with 7 seconds remaining.
After Oregon cut the lead to 26-18 with 5:20 left in the second quarter, in the midst of a scoreless stretch of nearly 4 minutes for the Wildcats, McDonald led a charge to close the half strong.
The All-American guard and Wooden Player of the Year candidate scored eight points in the last 2:41 of the half, including a strong move to the hoop in the waning seconds, to give the Wildcats a 36-22 lead at the half.
In the midst of that run, Graves was called for a technical foul. Four of his players had two fouls by halftime.
Oregon had 13 turnovers in the first half that led to 16 points for Arizona. It averaged 11 turnovers in its 11 games entering Thursday.
Nyara Sabally was Oregon’s lone scorer in double figures in the game with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field.
“They were the aggressors and we played on our heels,” Graves said. “There was little good to come out of the game. Some of the times we couldn’t get the ball in bounds, seriously? I’m really disappointed. I was at a loss.”
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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.