The Arizona Women’s basketball team is off to its best start in 20 years, with a chance to solidify themselves as one of the top-ranked teams in the nation this weekend as they are set to host No. 8 UCLA and USC.
The team is grooving at the moment as they enter the week riding a three-game winning streak, after sweeping its in-state rivals for the first time in 20 years. It’s also the first time since 2000 that the team have been ranked as high as 16. The Wildcats will need to keep their composure this weekend as they look to continue this historic run.
Arizona split the trip to Los Angeles earlier this season, beating USC before falling to then-No. 10 UCLA. They will undoubtedly have the support from the fans in McKale Center, but the ‘Cats will need a little more than home-court advantage if they want to sweep the Southern California schools this weekend.
Battle on the Boards
UCLA was the first blemish on Arizona’s record this season when they traveled to Pauley Pavillion earlier this month. They held their own with the Bruins in the first half as they went into half knotted up at 30. The second half was dominated by UCLA, as they outscored the Wildcats 39 to 27.
This was in large part due to the rebounding differential, as the Bruins pummeled Arizona on the boards. UCLA grabbed 14 more boards than the ‘Cats on the night and capitalized with 15 second-chance points, helping them cruise to a 70-58 victory.
“We got killed on the boards,” Barnes said about the team's performance in its first game against UCLA. “The first thing would be rebounding. We are doing a better job but we are not where we need to be.”
The Wildcats will need to do better than their 36 rebounds per game average if they want to keep both games close this weekend.
The last time Arizona met with both schools they were short-handed, as they were without Dominique McBryde, who was nursing a sprained ankle. Freshman Helena Pueyo was also banged up and saw limited action in the UCLA game after feeling under the weather the night before. Additionally, they were missing Tee Tee Starks, who will miss the remainder of the season following surgery to repair a torn labrum.
“I wish we had more Tee Tees,” Barnes said, “It’s not about the skill, it’s about her heart. We would’ve been so much better this year with her.”
Aari McDonald added, “It sucks not having her on the floor. She’s definitely been helpful off the court and definitely keeps us in check on the sidelines.”
Before the matchup against ASU last Friday, McBryde hadn’t seen action since Dec. 2 when she went out with a right ankle sprain in a game against Monmouth. In her return McBryde was able to play 25 solid minutes, establishing her defensive presence as she came away with three steals and a block.
McDonald believes McBryde's return could be essential for the Wildcats to walk out this weekend with two wins.
“She plays great defense," McDonald said. "I think that Dominique is going to be key."
Pueyo was solid for Arizona in its last matchup with USC as she drained three shots from distance, finishing with 11 points in 29 minutes off the bench. She only saw 11 minutes total in the game against the Bruins, failing to connect on any of her shot attempts.
McBryde returning to the lineup for both games provides the ‘Cats with more size and depth to their lineup while bringing back that veteran leadership to the floor. With Pueyo being able to play extended minutes, it will allow for more driving lanes to open up with her ability to space the floor. It also allows for McDonald to rest a little as Pueyo can create opportunities for others with the ball in her hands.
An area that could be detrimental to the Wildcats' chances this weekend and moving forward is its bench contributions, or lack thereof. Arizona’s second unit was virtually non-existent the last time they faced off against UCLA and USC, getting outscored 41 to 14 in the combined matchup. It could be a result of not having the team at 100%, but now that Arizona is practically at full strength, the ‘Cats should see more production coming from their bench.
Arizona’s three losses this year have all come at the hands of teams ranked inside the top 10, a sweep over the Southern California schools would be huge for the program as they set eyes on the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments in the coming months.
The Wildcats are slated to play UCLA on Friday at 6 p.m. and USC on Sunday at noon.
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