Arizona lived up to its first game at its loftiest ranking in school history — No. 6 — with a 65-37 rout of rival Arizona State behind 22 points from Aari McDonald in a late-afternoon game Thursday at McKale Center.
The Wildcats, 4-0 overall, are 3-0 in the Pac-12 for the first time since 2003-04. Joan Bonvicini coached her team that season to a co-championship in the Pac-10 with Stanford with a 14-4 record.
McDonald raised her eyebrows when told it has been 17 years since the Wildcats won their first three conference games.
“That’s definitely a big confidence booster. That’s motivation,” said McDonald, who made 8 of 17 shots from the field and a career-high 5 of 11 from 3-point range.
“We definitely want to keep that up. It’s definitely momentum heading forward to next week.”
Arizona took control from the start behind its defense and the play of McDonald, who late in the third quarter had almost as many points as the Sun Devils in the game.
The Wildcats’ fullcourt pressure and their suffocating half-court defense rattled ASU, which had more turnovers (23) than shots made (14 of 52 from the field).
“We definitely want to have our defense be our identity,” said Sam Thomas, a Pac-12 All-Defense selection last year who finished with two blocked shots and a steal.
“This year, we have some new players we’re trying to mesh well because defense is all about rotating and communication. We’re still trying to find that chemistry and bond. I think in this game, we really showed that we can have that defense like we did last year. We knew that we had to keep the pressure on (ASU) to kind of get them out of their game because they’re still young (eight freshmen and sophomores), and they’re still learning.”
The Wildcats have beaten ASU (4-2, 1-2) three straight times, their longest streak against the Sun Devils since winning 14 straight from 1994 to 2000. The 28-point win over ASU is the Wildcats’ largest win over the Sun Devils since the 1997-98 team with Adia Barnes won by 35 points — 92-57 — at McKale Center.
“As a player, I never lost to ASU. We definitely owned the state back then,” said Barnes, who won eight of the games in the 14-game winning streak. “I want to have the Territorial Cup. We got a sweep last year and I felt like we can have a sweep again this year.”
McDonald finished with seven rebounds and three assists. Cate Reese added 13 points and seven rebounds.
Normally, Barnes would have her lineup set by Pac-12 play, but only four games into this season, affected by COVID-19, she decided to start Bendu Yeaney at off-guard in place of Shaina Pellington (who started the first three games).
Yeaney, a transfer from Indiana, entered the game shooting only 25 percent from the field but she showed energy with her 5.3 rebounds a game. She is still trying to reach her stride, finishing with three points and three rebounds in 19 minutes.
Pellington finished with four points and five turnovers in 14 minutes.
Barnes has her program at a point where despite many key players not playing to their potential yet, the Wildcats are ranked No. 6 and remain unbeaten.
“We have the ability, we have depth, we have a good team … I just feel like we haven’t played good basketball yet,” said Barnes, who after the sweep of UCLA and USC said Arizona is not worthy of its top-10 ranking yet with how they fell behind by double digits in both games before rallying to win.
“What I was looking for in this game was how much could we improve this week. Do we share the ball better? Do we make the extra pass? Are we rotating better? Those are the things I emphasized in practice. I wanted to see that applied to the game and I felt like we saw that. What’s important to me is we got better.”
Arizona took a 26-11 lead with 6:17 left in the second quarter following consecutive 3-pointers by Helena Pueyo and McDonald.
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) December 11, 2020
The baskets were part of an 11-2 run started by another 3-pointer by Pueyo, equaling what she made in Arizona’s first three games.
The lead ballooned to 31-13 on a Trinity Baptiste putback with 3:25 left in the second quarter, Baptiste’s first points of the game. She too was trying to find her game after only two points against USC on Sunday following her 18-point and 11-rebound game against UCLA last week.
Baptiste finished with seven points and five rebounds in 21 minutes.
Thomas, who scored only 12 points in Arizona’s first three games and was 0-of-9 from 3-point range entering the game, finally made one from beyond the arc in the third quarter, the only shot she made in the game.
“It was a relief,” Thomas said with her customary laugh about her 3-pointer. “I definitely knew I was 0 for 9 coming in. My teammates had my back. I mean, it was just a mental block. I went in and took extra shots (in practice).
“Now, I’m ready to roll. I got the feel for it.”
The Wildcats led 34-18 at halftime as ASU committed more turnovers (10) than it made field goals. The Sun Devils could not figure out Arizona’s halfcourt defense coming off pressure. They made only 8 of 28 shots from the field (28.6 percent) at that point.
Reese and McDonald combined for 15 points in the third quarter, outscoring ASU’s 12, to push the lead to 52-30 going into the fourth quarter.
In one sequence of the third quarter, McDonald made three 3-pointers in a span of 46 seconds to increase Arizona’s lead from 37-20 to 46-23, forcing ASU coach Charli Turner-Thorne to call a time out with 7:18 left in the quarter.
“I thank my teammates for finding me,” McDonald said. “Once you see the ball go in, it gives you confidence. It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna shoot another one and see if that is going and it went in.’
“I was just happy. My teammates were cheering for me. I like that.”
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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.