A big night in the desert as No. 18 Wildcats sweep No. 16 Sun Devils for the first time in 20 years
The rise of the Pac-12 is often ascribed to the fact that the conference has multiple legitimate Final Four contenders most years. While that leads to headlines, those top programs are greatly aided by the fact that the teams just behind them are also very strong. Tough games in January are good for the RPI and postseason preparation. Teams in the second tier of the Pac-12 are not only pushing the top-10 members of the league, they’re capable of knocking them off on any given night.
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Arizona State proved that two weeks ago when it beat both Oregon and Oregon State in Tempe. The Sun Devils entered the second of their rivalry games against the Arizona Wildcats on a five-game winning streak. They had only two losses in Pac-12 play. One of those losses was to Arizona.
On Friday, both teams entered their rivalry game as ranked opponents for the first time in the history of the rivalry. In a physical game much like their first match-up, it ended in an almost identical score with Arizona walking away with the 59-53 victory.
What were the big takeaways from Friday’s big game in Tucson?
“It’s about damned time!”
The last 15 years have been tough for Arizona in their rivalry games, but it wasn’t always like that. When head coach Adia Barnes played for the team, they never lost to Arizona State.
Charli Turner Thorne arrived in Tempe in 1996, but it took her a few years to get things headed in the right direction. Once she did, the rivalry was competitive for about five years before the Wildcats dropped off a cliff in 2005. The last time Arizona had swept ASU was the 1999-2000 season.
Barnes was happy to put that 20-year drought to bed on Friday. After the game, she told the assembled 10,160 fans in McKale Center that they were integral to the Wildcats’ ability to finally get the sweep.
“It’s about damned time,” she told the crowd, her voice hoarse from yelling over them for two hours.
Pac-12 fans love women’s basketball
Speaking of that crowd of 10,160 fans who started lining up to get into McKale Center two hours before the game, it was the largest to ever watch the women’s hardwood version of the Duel in the Desert. It also points to a much bigger story about women’s basketball.
South Carolina is known for its huge crowds, but two of the largest increases in attendance last year came in the Pac-12. The Oregon Ducks had the biggest jump in the country with an increase of 2,893 fans. This year, they outdraw their school’s men’s team, which has been ranked in the top 10 for much of the season. The third-highest increase was the Arizona Wildcats, who saw an increase of 1.742 per game. Of the top 25 increases, five of them came in Pac-12 arenas.
On Friday, the Pac-12 Network aired two straight games with large, rabid crowds. After the game ended in Tucson, it was on to a sold-out Civil War in Eugene as Oregon hosted Oregon State. For Arizona, it was their second straight home game with at least 8,000 in attendance.
Robbi Ryan is kind of a big deal
Arizona State gets the tag of “defensive team” quite often. That shouldn’t take away from the talented offensive players they have on their roster, though.
Before the game, Barnes said that one of the things that makes ASU tough is their offensive balance. You can’t really key on one player, and a lot of that comes down to how Turner Thorne substitutes.
“It’s also hard because…no one’s at like 15 points,” Barnes said. “So that’s why they’re unpredictable. I think that’s what makes them special. And so you just gotta play everybody the same because they really have 10 people that could start, and they just rotate them in.”
Because of ASU’s substitution patterns, the Sun Devils’ stars may not always get to show off their prowess on the offensive end of the court. While the game wasn’t an offensive masterpiece by either team, on Friday Ryan demonstrated why she should never be underestimated.
“Both teams’ offense looked like crap except for Robbi Ryan,” Barnes said.
It was Ryan who was largely responsible for bringing her team back to within a single possession in the final quarter after they had fallen behind by 10. She had nine of the Sun Devils’ 20 points over the final 10 minutes including two big 3s. She added two rebounds and a steal to keep her team in it.
“We’ve been down plenty of times and been able to come back,” Ryan said. “That was our mindset.”
Ryan ended the night as the game’s leading scorer with 25 points on 10-for-21 shooting. She added five rebounds, two assists and two steals in 31 minutes of play.
Arizona found a way to rebound
The Wildcats have struggled to rebound against just about everyone on their schedule. Two weeks ago, they lost to Oregon and Oregon State by a total of nine points. The inability to rebound was a big reason for that, and Barnes said that they would be working on it every day.
She lived up to her word, and her team lived up to her demands.
ASU is one of the top-rebounding teams in the Pac-12. They average over 41 rebounds per game with just over 16 on the offensive end of the court. On Friday, Arizona won the overall and offensive battle on the boards.
“The players will tell you we have worked on it every day,” Barnes said. “I don’t think it takes athleticism. I don’t think it takes anything but your determination to box out. I think everybody’s capable of doing that. So we worked on it every day for two weeks. And every missed box out in practice, they run for. So we chart every missed box out, and then after practice sometimes they have 10. Then they run. So it’s paying off. They’re not going to like that, but we’re going to continue to do that.”
The evening started with an offensive rebound and a 3-point shot from Aari McDonald. It ended with her at center court, taking part in Arizona’s new “bang the drum” celebration of home victories.
There’s no way to overestimate her importance to the Wildcats. Her ability to weave through traffic, to pick the pockets of her opponents, to get in their faces on defense, to rebound the ball all help make things go. She scores over 20 points a game and she’s also one of 15 players up for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award.
On Friday, every aspect of her game was on display. She was just behind Ryan with 24 points. At 5-foot-6 she led the game with 11 rebounds. Her four rebounds on the offensive end of the court were almost half of her team’s nine offensive boards. Throw in four assists and four steals, and there’s a reason people talk about her possibly entering the WNBA draft after the season.
Arizona fans hope they get to enjoy her for another year. At the very least, they have a few more months to bask in their team’s return to relevance.
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