With just four non-conference games left to play, Arizona women’s basketball is exceeding expectations after last season’s disappointing 6-24 campaign.
Last year, the Wildcats were 2-5 through their first seven non-conference games. This year, however, the ‘Cats are 6-1, coming off a big win against San Diego State University, who beat them last year.
There are two glaring reasons for Arizona’s success thus far. One is the play of redshirt sophomore Aari McDonald, and the other is the play of freshman Cate Reese.
McDonald, who transferred from the University of Washington after her freshman year and was actually recruited by then-UW assistant coach and current Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, has had a stellar season.
She is currently second in the nation in points per game, averaging 26.6, just behind the nation’s best 26.7 mark.
The redshirt sophomore set her career high in points in a losing effort against Loyola-Marymount on Nov. 13, a game in which she had 39, while also adding eight rebounds and three steals.
McDonald was named Pac-12 Player of the Week on Nov. 19 for her performance in the Bank of Hawaii Classic, becoming the first Arizona player to receive the honor since 2015, when Candice Warthen won the award.
In the win against San Diego State on Dec. 2, McDonald earned 29 points, adding nine rebounds and a season-high four steals. Even with the high scoring numbers, Barnes lauded McDonald’s unselfishness.
“She’s not the type of player that looks for hers,” Barnes said. “She’s just so gifted, and a lot of the time when stuff breaks down, she’s able to get to the basket.”
Another big reason for the Wildcats’ success is freshman Cate Reese. The highest-ranked prospect in program history, Reece has lived up to the lofty expectations.
The 6-foot-2 forward is just shy of averaging a double-double, with 15.4 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game.
She has three double-doubles on the season, including a 19-point and 16-rebound game against South Carolina State. Her 15.4 points per game lead all the Pac-12 freshman.
“She’s just so aggressive, confident. She doesn’t hold back,” Barnes said of her freshman. “Those are the things you can’t teach, and she brings that.”
While the 6-1 start is certainly encouraging, there are a few issues the team will have to address before Pac-12 play starts at the end of the month.
One area the Wildcats need to improve on is their 3-point shooting. The ‘Cats are currently shooting 32 percent from behind the arc. Their best three point shooter, junior Lucia Alonso, is 15-36 on the season from three, shooting under 50 percent in four of the seven contests.
It helps that defensively, from three point land, Arizona has held its opponents to shooting 34-125, or 27 percent.
So, while the ‘Cats aren’t hitting deep shots on a consistent basis, they aren’t allowing a 3-point barrage on the other end.
Another thing that the Wildcats have done particularly well over the course of the first seven games is their free throw percentage, which currently sits at 75 percent.
They have gotten to the line 121 times on the season, a majority of those coming from McDonald and Reese, who have combined for 85 of those attempts, and are shooting 83 percent and 88 percent from the line, respectively.
The Wildcats still have a lot to prepare for as they get ready for perhaps the toughest conference in the country, with five teams in the top 25.
If the ‘Cats keep up their strong play, they find might themselves among those teams.
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