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Arizona women’s basketball expects to go with even shorter bench in final exhibition

Jada Williams (2), Kailyn Gilbert (15), Helena Pueyo (13), Isis Beh (33), Salimatou Kourouma (24)
Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics

Arizona women’s basketball didn’t need a full bench to defeat West Texas A&M last week. The Wildcats played with just seven players in the runaway victory. Can they beat Point Loma Nazarene with just six? It may come to that.

“Not sure totally, but possibly Skylar [Jones is still out],” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “Courtney [Blakely is] still out. Breya [Cunningham is] still out because we want to have her back for the first game. And potentially I might hold out Helena [Pueyo], I’m just not sure. She’s got a little sore quad. So, she sat out yesterday, so I’ll probably sit her out today, so I’m not sure, but she probably won’t play.”

Barnes said that her focus is on getting as many healthy as she can for the regular season opener at New Mexico State next Monday. If that means sitting them out for an exhibition, she thinks it’s her best option.

The loss of fifth-year guard Pueyo would be the biggest blow to Arizona. In the Wildcats’ win over the Buffaloes, Pueyo was one of two to score at least 20 points. She also had seven assists to lead the team.

Barnes said that Cunningham and Pueyo were being held out for precautionary reasons. She wants both to be ready for the regular season but is more concerned about Cunningham and Jones getting into the swing of things once that time comes. Both freshmen are missing time on the floor during an exhibition season meant to get the team acclimated to playing in games. Cunningham has been out for approximately a month.

“I don’t think Skylar is available, but I wish she could be because it’s just to get the kinks out,” Barnes said. “I wish Breya could be because now their first game is going to be a real game, which is okay. They’ve played at high levels, but you want those exhibition games for that. Courtney hasn’t had a chance to play here. Yeah, I anticipate her being ready by the first game, but you want them to kind of get the jitters out and have something under their belt before we start and we’re starting on the road.”

Barnes went into the season expecting to have 12 players, but an injury to Montaya Dew and Fanta Gassama leaving the team left her with 10. She said that she might consider adding walk-ons this year because of the short bench, but it’s not an easy task simply because of the nature of women’s sports. There are 361 Division I teams with 15 scholarships each, two more full rides than on the men’s side, so finding players who are good enough to play but are willing not to is difficult.

“I think that it’s hard for female athletes to come sit here when you can maybe go to GCU and play,” Barnes said. “I think that’s hard because if you’re usually good enough to compete, you want to compete for a scholarship. And for me, I don’t want to carry 15 people. Carrying 15 people was a disaster. I don’t like it. It was not good. It was very hard. A lot of people were very miserable. And then like it’s hard to work people in for practice when you have really good practice players. So, a lot of times, if let’s say we had three or four walk-ons, they’re not going to probably be as good as the male practice player. So then you have incentive to use the male practice players. So, I think it’s hard to ask someone to commit to all this time, every day, and then just to be a cheerleader at practice and practice some. I think it’s a hard job to fill, which is unfortunate. I think on the men’s side... there’s so much prestige and so much that comes with [it]. What you get is a lot more on the men’s side...I think the perks of their travel, their gear, their meals, I think it’s just a lot more than what the women get. So, I think that the perks aren’t as big and that’s just the fact.”

The loss of three guards would leave just two available—freshman Jada Williams and sophomore Kailyn Gilbert. That means Barnes will likely go big at times.

“You might see Esmery [Martinez] playing some three tomorrow,” Barnes said. “We might play a bigger lineup just because of our personnel. So, you might see more of Isis [Beh] and Maya [Nnaji] together a little bit more with Esmery at the three, and it could be solid. That’s a line-up that wouldn’t typically play together...I think it’ll push Esmery, which is good. I think that’s good experience for Esmery that can help us down the line.”

Point Loma Nazarene Sea Lions @ Arizona Wildcats

When: Wednesday, Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. MST

Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Radio: Wildcats 1290 AM (KCUB)

Stats: Arizona Live Stats

Full Adia Barnes press conference from Oct. 31, 2023

How to follow along

Follow us on X (Twitter) @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live posts of women’s basketball games and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.