TUCSON, Ariz. — It wasn’t the greatest offensive start of the season for preseason All-American guard Aari McDonald, who watched her first four shots clang off the rim and her Wildcats fall into an early hole.
But she found other ways to affect the game, adding a couple assists and also a few steals. By the end of the afternoon, her high-scoring ways had returned and No. 7 Arizona was well on its way to a 76-63 victory over Northern Arizona on Sunday.
In the process, McDonald learned she doesn’t have to be a superhero every game for the Wildcats to win.
“My teammates this year are making my job much easier,” McDonald said. “I can focus on other things, like I can communicate, I can lockdown on defense. But I’m not satisfied about my performance today or the whole team’s. We’ve definitely got some improving to do.”
Cate Reese scored a game-high 21 points and McDonald added 18 and Arizona won its only scheduled non-conference game of the season.
McDonald scored in double figures for a 67th straight game, which is the nation’s longest active streak. She made just 6 of 17 of her shots but finished with eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals.
The Wildcats struggled from long range, missing their first seven 3-pointers before McDonald knocked one down late in the third quarter. But Arizona compensated with a dominant performance inside, scoring 60 points in the paint. The 6-foot-2 Reese shot 9 of 13 from the field.
“I thought she played really good,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “I’m not surprised at all. Cate’s improved so much. She played today like she does every day in practice.”
Northern Arizona (1-1) was playing its second game after beating UNLV 79-75 in the opener. The Lumberjacks jumped out to a 13-8 lead midway through the first quarter but Arizona recovered to take an 18-15 lead by the end of the period and didn’t trail again.
McDonald had a steal at mid-court to open the second quarter which led to a layup for her first field goal of game. The 5-foot-6 senior averaged more than 20 points per game last season.
Arizona led 30-24 at halftime. Northern Arizona shot just 3 of 20 (15%) from the field in the second quarter.
McDonald had another steal and layup on the first possession of the second half which helped jump-start a 31-point third quarter that led to a 61-46 advantage.
Northern Arizona was led by Jacqulynn Nakai’s 17 points. Emily Rodabaugh added 14 points and eight rebounds. The Lumberjacks slowly fell behind in the second half, unable to stop Arizona from getting close-range baskets.
NAU coach Loree Payne she was pleased her team was fearless and came out aggressive.
“They’re just a little bigger, stronger and faster,” Payne said. “You can’t match size when you don’t have it. They have some All-Americans on that team. We just wore down at the end a little.”
Arizona is trying to build off last year’s breakout season when the Wildcats finished with a 24-7 record, including a 12-4 mark in the Pac-12. It’s an experienced team that returns more than 6,000 career points, which leads the nation.
This was Arizona’s only scheduled non-conference game before 22 straight games against Pac-12 opponents.
It was a solid effort by the Lumberjacks, who should be one of the better teams in the Big Sky this season. Arizona was a little sloppy in its opener and McDonald had a off-day shooting, but she’s a proven scorer and should bounce back quickly. Reese and others were there to pick up the slack on Sunday.
“The first game was very rusty, but we haven’t played in 266 days, so I have to keep that in the back of my mind,” Barnes said. “I’m just blessed that we’re able to play. I look all around the country, and I honestly was nervous until we went in to warm up.”
NAU starts Big Sky Conference play with back-to-back road games at Eastern Washington on Thursday and Saturday.
Arizona begins its Pac-12 Conference schedule with a home game against UCLA on Friday.