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Arizona women’s basketball inks top-10 class

The Wildcats are one of six Pac-12 teams in the top 10

Maya Nnaji during her commitment announcement

When head coach Adia Barnes arrived, Arizona recruiting classes were not ranked. The Wildcats didn’t regularly pull in top 100 players let alone top 35. Those things started to change in 2017 when Sam Thomas arrived. The next season, Arizona had the No. 14 class in the country according to ESPN HoopGurlz. Cate Reese, ranked No. 12 by HoopGurlz, became the highest-ranked recruit to ever sign. Those “highest-ranked ever” marks have now been bested.

“I’m really excited to see where this program is gonna go after I’m gone,” Thomas said. “We have a lot of good kids coming in. I wish I could play with them, but I don’t think I’m gonna get a sixth year. But just really happy to see where we’ve come. Our biggest competitions are like Oregon, the UConns, the Stanfords, UCLA, we’re really grabbing the same kids as them. So I’m really just excited that we can now compete where when I (committed) here, I was like the first top 100 kid, which, I mean, whatever. Now we’re getting like Top 15.”

On Wednesday, Arizona began receiving national letters of intent from members of the class that HoopGurlz ranked No. 6 in late October. Leading the way was the Wildcats’ first top 10 recruit ever, ninth-ranked Maya Nnaji. Nnaji is the third-ranked forward in 2022 according to ESPN. Not far behind her is No. 31 Kailyn Gilbert, the ninth-ranked point guard. Both players were named to the Naismith Girls’ High School Player of the Year Watch List on Wednesday morning.

Still unsigned because she is currently in camp with the Canadian Senior Women’s National Team is No. 84 Lemyah Hylton. Barnes could not comment on Hylton because her paperwork is not in yet.

Other services have Nnaji and Gilbert ranked even higher than ESPN HoopGurlz does. Nnaji is No. 7 according to Bret McCormick at ASGR Basketball. McCormick has Gilbert at No. 22 and Hylton at No. 98. Like ESPN, he has Arizona’s class ranked sixth in the nation.

Barnes has been pursuing Nnaji for years, and it’s not just because she’s the younger sister of former Arizona men’s basketball star Zeke Nnaji. Although, while recruiting during the pandemic, it did help that Maya had spent a great deal of time on campus and knew that her brother was happy living in Tucson.

In addition to Zeke, Maya has other ties to Arizona that made both sides confident in her ability to contribute and be happy with the Wildcats.

“Her high school coach is Tee Tee Starks’ mother,” Barnes said. “Tara Starks. And she’s a great coach. Runs a really good program and Maya’s coached really well.”

That high school program—Hopkins High in Minnetonka, Minn.—is a perennial powerhouse. It has produced other college stars, including current Connecticut sophomore Paige Bueckers. Amaya Battle, the No. 39 player in the 2022 class, still plays alongside Maya. Starks took over as the head coach last season after spending years coaching on the local AAU circuit.

Maya brings a combination of things, both on the court and off, that will make fans fall in love with her, Barnes said.

“Maya is 6-foot-4, versatile, she can score in different ways, she can play inside and outside,” Barnes said. “So great player, the highest-ranked player we’ve ever had. Number nine nationally, number three in her position—which I think she’s even better than that. She’s going to be an immediate impact player. But, more importantly, off the court, she is a phenomenal young woman...People love Sam, so think about just a different version of her. Maya is really smart. She’s a great connector, a really good teammate, a leader. She’s coming into Arizona into a medical program. So a seven-year plan to be a doctor.”

Gilbert was the first member of the 2022 class to commit to Arizona. She did so sight unseen, as she committed before players were allowed to take campus visits. For a player from Florida, it might have seemed like a big leap, but she also knew someone in Tucson who was very happy.

“Trinity (Baptiste) was another player from Florida that knows Kailyn and never had been to Arizona,” Barnes said. “So I think Trinity being here, they were always talking and she was asking her questions, and Trinity had an amazing experience. And so I think that that also helped with Kailyn.”

Eventually, Gilbert did get to take her visit to Arizona, but she had long since committed. In her final year of high school, she has transferred to IMG Academy to prepare for college.

After pulling in ESPN’s sixteenth-ranked class last year, the Wildcats should be set up for on-court success for several years to come even if they stand pat with the three players who gave their verbal commitments.

“We could sign one more,” Barnes said. “I wasn’t out pursuing, but there’s a situation where we could but I’m not sure. Regardless, our class is great. So whether we do or not we’re prepared for next year. We don’t need a lot of players after that...we only need a couple spots because we have a really full roster... I think we have a team that’s built to be successful for the next three, four years at a high level. So I think you’ll see us even be better in a couple of years than we are now. So I’m excited for that.”