For only the second time in program history, No. 4 Arizona has started 10-0 in a season.
The Wildcats reached that record with an 82-55 victory Friday night at NAU’s Walkup Skydome. Arizona’s 2019-20 team holds the school record for the best start at 13-0.
Arizona’s full-court pressure defense was too much for the Lumberjacks (5-5) from the start with the Wildcats building a 23-7 lead in the first quarter behind nine steals that contributed to NAU’s 10 turnovers at that point.
Arizona made 10 of 15 shots (66.7 percent) from the field in the first quarter, most of them in transition attacking the basket following the turnovers.
The Wildcats’ interior players — Cate Reese, Ariyah Copeland and Aaronette Vonleh — dominated from the start combining for 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the first quarter with many of those shots taken after positioning against the smaller Lumberjacks.
“We tried to prepare them for the pressure but it’s really hard to simulate that,” NAU coach Loree Payne said during a postgame interview on ESPN-Plus. “They’re athletic. They’re big. They’re aggressive. There’s a reason why they’re undefeated right now and they’re one of the top teams in the country.”
Adia Barnes utilized 13 of her 14 available players in the first quarter, and Anna Gret Asi, the last one without minutes, was inserted in the second quarter.
Lauren Ware (dislocated right knee) was the only player out. She will be sidelined at least another week.
Copeland started in Ware’s place and Vonleh replaced Copeland early in the rotation.
When asked the importance being able to go deep into her bench for an early-season game, Barnes answered, “Extremely important.”
“That was the game plan coming into the game,” she continued. “We were into our 15-player rotation in the first quarter. So that’s always a plus, but then when you do that, you have to expect that it’s going to be ugly, because of different combinations and different people playing different positions under pressure and under stress.
“Some parts were ugly because of that. But the main thing is we got to do that.”
None of Arizona’s starters played more than 15 minutes.
Vonleh (24 minutes), Helena Pueyo (23) and Koi Love (21) were the only players with more than 20 minutes of playing time.
Vonleh had 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field in the first half. She was also 3 of 4 from the free-throw line after entering the game missing her first five shots from the foul line this season.
The freshman forward finished with a career-high 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field.
Vonleh also showed good anticipation — and patience — of passes to the paint by having two of Arizona’s 16 steals in the game.
Her growing pains only 10 games into her college career are evident with her playing only one minute against New Mexico on Sunday but than having the most minutes of any Arizona player against NAU.
“Offensively, what I’m seeing is that she’s shooting with more balance, but she still has to continue to do that a little bit more,” Barnes said. “Defensively, she’s going for (steals) and she’s going for blocks way too much. She’s out of position. We can teach her about that. We can show her film. She wants to learn.
“She has to be a little bit more disciplined knowing when to go for something and when not to. Our defense on the block has improved tremendously, but she doesn’t have to go for a steal every time. She got a couple of fouls by reaching through people. I told her, ‘You work to get someone off the block by being solid playing behind them. You already did your job early.’ It’s just teaching. We have to teach her and coach her.”
Reese and Copeland each had eight points and four rebounds. Their contribution matched with Vonleh led to Arizona outscoring NAU 52-18 in the paint.
Madison Conner had 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range. She was coming off a career-high 15-point performance in the 77-60 win over New Mexico.
In her last two games, Conner has made 9 of 16 shots from 3-point range. In the eight games previously, she was 8 of 22 from beyond the arc.
“Madi is taking advantage of her opportunities,” Barnes said. “I thought she’s getting so much better defensively, being able to keep people in front of her. She had the best efficiency rating (against NAU). She was at a positive-27 efficiency rating.
“She’s just improving and getting better. She’s a freshman. She will continue to improve. I’m really, really happy with the way she’s playing. She can help us a lot.”
Love finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. She led Arizona with four steals.
The Wildcats also tallied 18 assists (Taylor Chavez was Arizona’s leader with four).
NAU, led by Emily Rodabaugh’s 13 points, finished with 22 turnovers that led to 28 points for the Wildcats.
Arizona played its first game at NAU since the 2017-18 season, Barnes’ second year as coach at her alma mater. The Lumberjacks won that game 84-66 against a Wildcat team that finished 6-24 that year.
It was only the second game in the last 24 years that Arizona played at Flagstaff. The schools are in the middle of a three-game arrangement. They played at McKale Center last year and will return to Tucson next year.
Former Pima standouts J.J. Nakai and Sierra Mich’l played in the game Friday for NAU.
Nakai had nine points with two made 3-pointers in 15 minutes and Mich’l did not score in six minutes.
Arizona next plays No. 11 Texas on Sunday in Las Vegas at T-Mobile Arena at 3:30 p.m.
The Wildcats traveled by bus from Flagstaff to Las Vegas — a three-hour trip — after Friday’s game.
“These are the games we wait for,” Barnes said of the matchup with the Longhorns. “This is what I think defines you and it also exploits your weaknesses. I’m excited. We’re playing on neutral grounds, which makes it even harder.
“I’m excited to see where we’re at and how we’re going to respond right before Christmas, which is also another hard time.”
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District