Michelle Smith WBB Feature: UA on a streak, Cal looks to regroup, Oregon is well-prepared
Arizona felt as if this season would be different. They also knew they might be one of the few who might think so.
The Wildcats head to Colorado Friday with an 11-1 record and a 10-game winning streak, tied for the longest in program history. And they notched their biggest win of the season over the weekend, defeating No. 17 Arizona State, 51-39, holding the Sun Devils to 23 percent shooting from the floor in front of more than 5,000 fans at the McKale Center. It was the Wildcats’ first win against ASU in their last five games and the lowest scoring effort by ASU against Arizona in 46 years.
“This lets us go into our other games with confidence, it’s all about getting better,” said Wildcats guard Aari McDonald, the Pac-12’s leading scorer. “We just need to keep playing the way we do, rebounding, playing great defense and the sky is the limit for us.”
Coach Adia Barnes, her team having already notched four more wins than all of last season, said she is pleased that her team played with confidence and physicality against Arizona State. She hopes that is a tone-setting game.
“We have a lot of areas where we need to improve,” Barnes said. “But we are playing with a good pace, playing with passion and fire and with a lot of confidence. Now it’s just a matter of not relaxing after beating ASU.”
The Wildcats currently rank fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing opponents 49.2 points a game. They are the talk of Tucson, earning a shout-out from Arizona men’s coach Sean Miller over the weekend.
Barnes acknowledged that things will get considerably more difficult for her young team, which has no senior starters. The Wildcats don’t have as much size, depth or experience as the top teams in the conference. And they are learning to play together, even with a dozen games under their belt.
“We are learning a lot of things for the first time,” Barnes said. “Our non-conference schedule wasn’t about playing 10 ranked teams. It was about confidence and learning. It was important to bring them along.
“It’s early. It’s easy to stay motivated right now, right now things are easy. We haven’t faced any adversity yet. But we will.”
Barnes said it’s going to take a few more weeks before she has a better sense of where her team fits into the Pac-12 picture this season.
“Every team in the conference is competitive. It’s cold, travel is hard,” Barnes said. “Are we going to be as tough and as confident on the road? Those are the questions marks for our team. I won’t know the answers for a little while.”
A week after playing to the final moments against top-ranked Connecticut, Cal stumbled in its non-conference finale, falling at home against an unranked Harvard team, 85-79. The Bears will need to find a way to regroup heading into the opening weekend of Pac-12 play where they open Friday night against UCLA.
Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb said after the game that it was “super disappointing” for Cal to finish the non-conference this way.
“That is not what the expectations are for this group,” Gottlieb said. “The only recourse is to force this to make us better for the upcoming weekend. That’s it. I’m not a big believer in 'everything happens for a reason.' It’s what you do about it. We have to decide that this makes us better.”
Cal has made no secret of the fact that it intends to compete for a Pac-12 title this season. Gottlieb’s frustration was evident.
“Sports is hard. You can’t go back. You can only control what happens going forward,” Gottlieb said. “You have to make it positive in some way. You can’t change the outcome, so you have to do things that make it so that you can look back and say, ‘We were better because of that Harvard loss.’ But I wish we were in a different situation.”
The UCLA matchup provides no respite. Six of the last eight meetings between Cal and UCLA have been decided by single-digits and two overtime games in that span.
Oregon prepares and Sabrina meets her idol
Ducks coach Kelly Graves said his team is well-prepared for the rigors of the Pac-12 schedule after playing the most difficult strength of schedule in the non-conference season. Oregon currently ranks No. 3 in the NCAA RPI rankings, followed by Stanford at No. 4.
“We are going to have to be ready every night and I love it,” Graves said. “We had the ninth-toughest strength of schedule in the country. We prepared ourselves. People looked and didn’t see a lot of glamorous names. That’s not what builds your RPI, that’s not what tests your team. You play good teams that win games and that’s what we did.”
The Ducks are tied for the top scoring team in the country, averaging 92.6 points a game.
“Offensively, we are certainly in good shape,” Graves said. “We are passing it well, shooting it well, taking care of it well. We are doing a lot of good things. Defensively, we are always a work in progress. But I think the Mississippi State game shows that if we put our minds to it, we can guard as well. I think sometimes, we find it so easy on the offensive end, that the defense should take care of itself, but that’s not the case.”
Graves believes the familiarity of the Pac-12 schedule will help his team defensively.
“The kids are more comfortable with the schedule, and the teams,” Graves said. “I like where we are. We have been tested and we’ve passed the test. We had better be sharp. We are going to get everybody’s best.”
Graves was excited to talk with star Sabrina Ionescu after winter break ended after she had an opportunity to attend a Golden State Warriors game and meet with Steph Curry.
“He knows who she is, he knows her game and he knows about our team,” Graves said. “She said she was in awe. She is such a confident kid. There are very few people who could make her feel that way.”