Modes of transportation were a topic of conversation at McKale Center on Friday. The No. 20 Arizona Wildcats were setting off on a four-hour drive to El Paso, Texas to face the UTEP Miners (7-1) on Saturday. Meanwhile, forward Dominique McBryde was wheeling around the court on a knee scooter.
“We are bussing, so a road trip,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “But it’s actually fun with us, because it’s the time for us. We get along great. So they sing, they dance, they go crazy on the bus sometimes. Sometimes I’m in the front like, ‘Keep it down back there!’ No, but it’s gonna be fun.”
As for McBryde, her situation is less fun. She’s one of the three players who picked up injuries last week. The senior, who Barnes has described as “a point guard from the post,” won’t be playing on Saturday.
“Dominique’s going to be out for a couple of weeks,” Barnes said. “So that’s just an unfortunate thing, but it’s a good situation. We caught it, when we caught it, because ankle sprains can be nagging. But our thing is to not rush and keep her out and get her better. And so we’re a little banged up, but it’s kind of this is going to be how it is. So for me, I’m not stressed about it, because we have depth.”
Also missing from action will be freshman post Sevval Gül who has been averaging about 9.5 minutes per game off the bench. Arizona only has five post players on the roster, so the absence of both McBryde and Gül leaves them a bit thin inside.
Luckily, junior forward Sam Thomas is on the roster. Thomas’ game is one of the most flexible of any player on the team. As a freshman, Thomas was the second-leading scorer for the Wildcats. As the program has added more depth, she hasn’t been called on to score as much, but her defense and flexibility make her invaluable to the team.
“The benefit of playing Semaj (Smith) is they have to also guard Semaj,” Barnes said. “So that’s an advantage for us and we still do pretty good in terms of transitioning when we’re bigger. But, then, I think Sam’s really good at the four and she’s been giving us minutes at the four a little bit so we will play small a lot with Lucia (Alonso) and Sam at the four just because we’re effective. And, I mean, Sam shoots the three at almost 60 percent, she’s like 55 percent, so she can still get those same shots in our system at the four. So, I think we’ll see a lot of those combinations just because of Dominique being out.”
The other silver lining is that the issues with inside depth give players like the 6-foot-5 sophomore Smith and 6-foot-3 freshman Birna Benonysdottir more time on the floor. Smith took full advantage of that opportunity in the Wildcats’ last game, putting up a career high 15 points. It was the first time she had scored in double digits since arriving on campus. That is what her coach wants to see.
“(The injury situation is) giving other people opportunities,” Barnes said. “And I tell them always opportunity knocks softly. This is a big opportunity for people to step up. And as a team, collectively, we have to. So let’s see how we do it on the road because there’s many times in the Pac-12 where something’s gonna happen to someone throughout the season, and other people have to step up. So I think these are good lessons and... I think if the timing’s right, it’s right now—if it could ever be right.”
The injury news isn’t all bad, either. Freshman wing Mara Mote also suffered an ankle sprain against Monmouth on Monday night. After an off day on Tuesday, Mote sat out Wednesday’s practice. She was back doing light work by Thursday and may play limited minutes on Saturday.
As one of the team’s primary ball-handlers off the bench, Mote’s skills could be important against the Miners.
“We anticipate them pressing, like most of the game,” Barnes said. “I mean, probably 30, 33, 35 minutes. They have a really good 2-2-1 press, but last night’s game, we saw a little bit of a man press. So I think they’re going to do both. But I also think it’s very hard to press someone like Aari (McDonald). So, is that going to change? Are they going to not have such a long press? Who knows. But I think we’re pretty effective against presses. And we’re pretty good in transition. So I think that’s going to be interesting to see how we respond to that. But I’m glad that we get to see that because we’re going to have to prepare for these things and for conference. So I think it’s a good test for us. It’s not an easy game at all.”
Barnes knows things are going to get much more difficult soon. That’s true for UTEP, as well. According to stats site Her Hoops Stats, the Wildcats’ strength of schedule is 346 out of 351 Division I teams. The Miners sit at 341.
That strength of schedule is responsible for Arizona’s unofficial RPI of 65. UTEP won’t help the Wildcats much, either, as they check in at No. 189.
The two teams have two common opponents: Eastern New Mexico and UC Riverside. Both played ENMU in exhibition games to open the season. Arizona came out ahead 85-38 and UTEP won by a score of 84-64. Against UCR, the Wildcats ended with the 70-27 victory on Nov. 29. The Miners took their match-up by a score of 63-50 back on Nov. 9.
How to watch or listen to the game
The face-off between the Wildcats and Miners will be streamed on ESPN+. The game tips off at 1 p.m. MST on Saturday, Dec. 7. The radio call is on KTUC 1400 AM in Tucson which can also be accessed online at Tunein. Statistics are available on Arizona Live Stats.