The families of seniors Aari McDonald and Sam Thomas were in attendance Friday night as they are in Tucson to be part of their daughters’ last two games at McKale Center.
The 10th-ranked Wildcats welcomed them with a much-anticipated victory in more ways than one.
Arizona wanted this 60-51 win badly over Washington State after the Wildcats lost 71-69 in overtime at Pullman, Wash., on Jan. 10.
Also, the families watched McDonald and Thomas play in person for the first time in 342 days since last March 7, when Arizona lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals at Las Vegas.
Thomas’ father Derek Thomas, is a former head coach for the Western Illinois’ men’s team and was an assistant at UNLV under Charlie Spoonhour. The elder Thomas, who coaches the Las Vegas Knicks’ AAU program, was heard in the empty arena yelling, “D up!”, “Rebound!” and “Shoot the ball!”
“I would like to apologize in advance for anything that you heard from him,” Sam Thomas said, laughing, about her dad. “No, I’m kidding. It was nice. When they told us that we were allowed to have a couple of family members to come to this weekend, Senior Weekend, it was nice to have my family there again.
“I feel like it’s been forever since we’ve had fans in general. At least my family was able to come in. Everyone heard him on the court. I’m pretty sure. Everyone’s been telling me so. I’m used to it. I just kind of like listened to him and when I want to block him out, I can, but I feel bad for everyone else to listen to him the whole 40 minutes.”
Always sleep better after a W pic.twitter.com/8pdcnMLAv2
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) February 13, 2021
Thomas, of course, laughed throughout her comment, which she usually does as one of the most engaging and personable players Arizona has featured in either the women’s or men’s programs over the years.
She fouled out for the only time this season in the loss at Washington State, which opened the door for freshman guard Charlisse Leger-Walker to make the shot that forced overtime and the winning basket at the buzzer.
“Washington State is a great team and they are the team that is here to upset a lot of other great teams, the ranked teams,” Thomas said. “It’s just nice to know we were able to take care of business this time.”
The Wildcats (13-2, 11-2 Pac-12) close out their home schedule Sunday against Washington at noon. They remain tied in the loss column atop the Pac-12 standings with Stanford (17-2, 14-2). UCLA (12-3, 10-3) is close behind in third place.
Every game is critical to be played with Arizona chasing its first outright Pac-12 title. The Wildcats have five postponements to make up for COVID-19 reasons, including their game at Washington on Jan. 8.
Adia Barnes said she is “not confident at all” that Arizona will play all 22 scheduled Pac-12 games “because I think it’s very difficult at this point in the season to make up five games.”
“I don’t know if I want to play multiple games with three in one week,” Barnes added. “We’re just not sure what’s ahead because I don’t know if we’re going to play on Sunday until Sunday.”
McDonald finished with 14 points against Washington State to notch her 81st consecutive double-digit scoring game, which encompasses her entire Arizona career. She also had five rebounds and three steals.
Thomas, the defensive ace who finished with five steals, started for the 113th time in her Arizona career. That total ranks No. 3 in the Arizona record book. She passed Elizabeth Pickney, who had 112 starts from 1998-2002. Davellyn Whyte (2009-13) has the record with 126.
Arizona Career Scoring Leaders
Cate Reese finished with a team-high 17 points, including nine in the fourth quarter when Arizona pulled away after leading 44-42 at the end of the third quarter. Her nine points matched Washington State’s total for the quarter. She made all three of her field goal attempts while the Cougars were 3 of 12.
In the last three games — wins against Utah, Oregon and Washington State — Reese has scored a combined 53 points with 21 rebounds. She is coming off a 25-point, six-rebound game on ESPN2 in Eugene, Ore., on Monday.
“Cate’s been on the floor more; when you look at the first part of the season, she was in foul trouble a lot,” Barnes reasoned for Reese’s increased production. “She was pulled in and out because of foul trouble. She’s done a much better job of being more solid defensively, in the right position. She’s put a lot of effort into it and focus.”
Reese has five games with at least four fouls, including a foul-out when Oregon visited on Jan. 14, but in her last four games, she has been called for three or fewer.
Barnes added that Arizona’s guards “are doing a much better job of looking for the post players” such as Reese.
Behind Reese’s shooting, the Wildcats responded in the fourth quarter after making only 2 of 19 shots from the field in the third quarter. The cold spell allowed Washington State to cut the lead to 44-42 after the Wildcats led by eight points at halftime.
Arizona Career Starts Leaders
Washington State (9-8, 7-8) missed its first seven shots of the fourth quarter, and the Wildcats built a 53-43 lead with 4:32 remaining.
The Cougars, who had 20 turnovers in the game with only 19 made field goals, made only 25 percent of their shots in the fourth quarter and 32 percent in the second half.
“I think we’re just committed to defense, we’re confident in it,” Barnes said. “We kind of thrive off turning people over and it helps us score easily in transition.”
Arizona has forced opponents to commit more turnovers than field goals made in five straight games at McKale. The Wildcats’ average margin of victory in those games is 17.8 points.
On to the next one. pic.twitter.com/X6nvfyttw4
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) February 13, 2021
Arizona gained separation in the second quarter, outscoring Washington State 21-12, led by Reese’s eight points in that stretch and the Cougars committed seven turnovers. McDonald’s 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer put Arizona ahead 39-31.
By that point, Arizona amassed 10 steals, including three each by McDonald, Thomas and Helena Pueyo. The Wildcats finished with 15 steals.
Pueyo had four steals and a team-best nine rebounds.
Arizona freshman center Lauren Ware had eight rebounds and kept a disruptive defensive presence inside throughout.
The Wildcats outrebounded Washington State 43-35 and outscored the Cougars 36-18 in the paint.
Leger-Walker finished with 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting from the field. Her sister Krystal, a fifth-year senior, was the only other Cougar in double figures with 11 points.
NOTES: Arizona freshman center Marta Garcia has an right ankle injury that required her to use a scooter to keep weight off her ankle. Barnes said Garcia will not play Sunday against Washington and her condition will be assessed after. … Bendu Yeaney, who suffered a dislocated shoulder at Oregon, was scoreless in only six minutes because Barnes said she wanted to have Yeaney recuperate.
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
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.