TEMPE – The Arizona State women’s basketball team found itself in an unfamiliar position against its arch rival.
ASU had gone 18-4 against Arizona this decade, and the final Territorial Cup matchup before 2020 came Sunday afternoon at Desert Financial Arena. This season, though, a rising Arizona program came into Tempe undefeated and No. 18 in the latest rankings while ASU was unranked.
“It is going to be the rival game no matter what (the rankings and records are),” ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said before the matchup. “It is weirdly fun that the pressure is on (Arizona) this time and not us because we are always usually favored. But in rivalry games, all that really goes out the window because none of that matters.
“… I think everyone is going to be excited that both teams are doing really well, and that both teams are actually really good.”
No. 18 Arizona (12-0) ultimately won an epic back-and-forth Territorial Cup matchup 58-53 against the Sun Devils (10-3) to start Pac-12 play and keep its perfect record.
“It was disappointing that we weren’t sharper,” Turner Thorne said. “We were getting better and better … and I thought that this was a step backward, but credit (Arizona) I thought that it was the tougher team today.”
Arizona has improved greatly since former Wildcats player Adia Barnes was named the coach in 2016. In her first season, she didn’t inherit the best situation and Arizona finished 14-16.
After that, the next season didn’t get better as Arizona finished only 6-24 and just 2-16 in the Pac-12 conference. Last season, though, Barnes had help on the way as now junior guard Aari McDonald became eligible as a transfer from Washington and incoming five-star freshman forward Cate Reese joined the team.
In the 2018 ESPN Hoopgurlz recruiting rankings, five-star Reese was slotted as the No. 12 player in the nation. With that came a shift for the Wildcats as a college basketball program.
Last season, Arizona finished the regular season 18-13 but didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But the Wildcats did advance to the National Invitational Tournament and made an impressive run.
Arizona defeated Idaho State, Pacific, Idaho and Wyoming and moved on the semifinal, where it won against TCU and ultimately won the tournament title with a 56-42 victory against Northwestern at McKale Center to finished the season 24-13.
In that game, 14,644 fans were in attendance, which was a program record as well as the largest crowd in Pac-12 women’s basketball history. That run provided a massive momentum boost for this season and the program, in general, where Arizona has already won a big-time game, 83-58, against then-No. 22 Texas on the road.
Arizona is now on an 18-game winning streak, dating back to last season, and the support and momentum for the program with Barnes has only continued to grow.
“It means a tremendous amount to me about where this program was three years to where it is now, and where we are moving toward,” Barnes said in a press conference before the matchup. “We are no longer in a rebuilding stage. We are in a ‘how are we going to get to the Top 10 or to a Final Four.’ I think the bar is set higher.
“… I am hoping that this gives us momentum and just ignites us, and makes us excited like the WNIT did for this season.”
This new success has brought greater interest and attention to the program and the support has grown rapidly. With it, Barnes said Arizona has increased confidence and expects more to end this season.
“They are hungry,” Barnes said. “They don’t want to talk about the WNIT anymore. If we won the WNIT this year, it would be a failure for them. That would not be good enough.”
McDonald has been the catalyst on the court. Last season she had a breakout campaign, averaging 24.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.6 steals per game as a sophomore.
Before Sunday, McDonald had averaged 19.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.5 steals per game. McDonald, though, remembers vividly what it was like when she first arrived at Arizona a few years ago as a redshirt.
“It is totally different,” McDonald said. “The year that I sat out, there was barely maybe 40 or 50 people here (at the games). Now, it is like, ‘Wow, you guys are really supporting us like this.’ It means a lot (and we feed off that).”
Last season, McDonald had 24 points, six rebounds and three assists in a win against ASU and, then, 28 points, nine rebounds and three rebounds in a loss. Turner Throne knew that ASU wouldn’t be able to completely stop McDonald, but she expected her team to play smarter against the potential All-American.
McDonald fouled out late in the game, but she finished with a game-high 20 points to go with four rebounds and five assists. Reese showed promise against the Sun Devils as well as she finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds to help Arizona to the rivalry win on the road.
“I think losses like this, they hurt,” ASU senior forward Jamie Ruden said. “Sometimes it is good that they hurt because that can be a wakeup call (for the rest of the season).”
Arizona hadn’t won in Tempe since 2000, losing the previous 19 matchups in the series.
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