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Arizona women’s basketball prepares for 2nd Top 15 opponent in a row

2023 Invesco QQQ Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase - South Carolina v Utah Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Arizona women’s basketball has a 9-5 record this season. All five of its losses have come at the hands of a team that has been ranked either when the game was held or soon after. On Sunday, the Wildcats have a sixth opportunity to take down such a team when they face No. 15 Utah and possibly reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili.

The question is how the Wildcats feel heading into a second straight game with seven available players. Four of the seven played at least 31 minutes on Friday evening. Helena Pueyo was credited with 40 minutes, but she actually got to rest for 23 seconds of game time. Kailyn Gilbert was only on the bench for 48 clicks of the game clock. Courtney Blakely’s 15:02 of playing time were the fewest minutes on the team.

If nothing else, the work they do with strength and conditioning coach Chris Allen could be seen in the players who were available. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes is also skipping the kind of practices she might have held if things were different.

“We have to learn from [film] so we can see what areas we need to get better at,” Barnes said. “Because right now we’re not able to do that in practice, because I can’t We can’t play 39 minutes, turnaround and practice tomorrow. So that hurts because you need reps. For freshmen and young players, they need the repetition. They’re not experienced enough to apply. Esmery can say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have slapped down on some of those.’ The freshmen need to be put in a situation, we have to go back and do it.”

There are concerns beyond the players on the court for either team. The officials may be another concern for Arizona after the public appeal to officiating by Utah head coach Lynne Roberts. After Pili was held out of the second half of the Utes’ 58-41 win over Arizona State for “precautionary reasons” on Friday, Roberts complained that Pili was “getting the crap beat out of” her this season without a response from the officials.

Will there be a response to that by the officiating crew in Tucson? An emphasis on fouls in the post could greatly impact an Arizona team with just two available posts. In Friday’s game between the Wildcats and Colorado, the officials let contact go on both sides for long stretches of the game.

As for the season as a whole, Pili isn’t the only one experiencing rough inside play without a whistle from the officials. Against Colorado, Esmery Martinez was the recipient of several hard blows. At one point, she was hit in the throat and spent several minutes bent over trying to recover. She, too, has played limited minutes in some games this season for precautionary reasons.

Sali Kourouma’s availability is uncertain due to the reinjury of the dislocated shoulder she suffered in the exhibition game against Point Loma. Barnes has not sounded positive when discussing Kourouma’s prospects, but there is no official prognosis right now. Isis Beh is in concussion protocol. She will not return this week. The pair join Montaya Dew and Erin Tack on the bench.

“That’s just the process,” Barnes said. “So if you have any signs of any headache or any blurred vision or anything—even if some people have a headache, I have a headache right now—but any kind of symptom, you’re going to be held up and put in protocols. You just can’t get out of it in two days. It takes like a week because then you have to have so many contact practices. So if you think like you this the week is so short, you wouldn’t have enough days to play the next game...You go off your baseline, then you get tested. Then you have a few non-contact then you have you have to contact before you can be released. So we couldn’t get to the contact yet, even though she’s better.”

Utah is in nowhere near the dire straits that Arizona finds itself. The Utes are dealing with significant absences, though.

Gianna Kneepkens is part of the reason Pili has been so effective inside since transferring to Utah. Kneepkens is one of the shooters who helps spread the floor for the Utes. It earned her WBCA All-American honorable mention last season and was helping the Utes stay in the Top 10 this year.

Kneepkens hasn’t played since the Utes’ Dec. 2 game against Brigham Young. On Monday, Dec. 4, the program announced that Kneepkens had broken several bones in her foot and would have season-ending surgery.

Senior point guard Isabel Palmer has also been out for an extended period. The Australian has only played in three games this season. Her last appearance was against Baylor on Nov. 14.

The Utes climbed as high as third in the Associated Press poll early in the season, but they have fallen to 15th after getting to the tougher part of their schedule. Utah is 3-2 in its last five games, dropping contests to No. 1 South Carolina and No. 5 Colorado. Before that, the only challenging game it played was against Baylor, which was also a loss. Playing two non-DI games means that its official NCAA record is 9-3.

It would count as a quality win for either team. For Utah, it would be its first win over a team in the top 50 of the NET. The closest thing the Utes have is a win over No. 56 St Joseph’s. Coming on the road would make it even more impressive.

Although Utah’s best win is over St. Joe’s and it played two games outside Division I, it still has a lofty NET of No. 4. Arizona has shown it can get close to top teams. It just really needs to get over the hump and win one. Can the near-miss against Colorado push it over the top or will the short bench be spent after coming up short?

“If I can get us to continue to play like this, we’re going to win a lot more Pac-12 games, and we can beat a lot of people,” Barnes said after the loss to CU. “I think we wouldn’t have lost the games we lost in the nonconference if we played like this.”

No. 5 Utah Utes (11-3 overall, 9-3 Division 1, 1-1 Pac-12) @ Arizona Wildcats (9-5, 1-1 Pac-12)

When: Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024 at 12 p.m. MST

Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

TV: Pac-12 Network and Pac-12 Mountain

Radio: Varsity Network

Stats: Arizona Live Stats

Barnes says: “Utah is a scoring machine. They’re an excellent offensive team that runs a lot of actions. Very hard to guard. They’re experienced. Pili really is one of the best posts in the country...extremely efficient. Can play inside, outside. So we have our hands full trying to guard her. But I think we’re good, too, and we’re doing some good things and we’re playing some good basketball. So I think I would be happy if we had opportunities to split this weekend. I think if you at least split at home—you try to win all the games at home, obviously, but that’s hard. If you at least split against really great teams and try to steal one or two on the road, I think that you’re sitting in a good situation for where we are and who we are.”

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.