With a late commitment from Spanish guard Helena Pueyo and two transfers, the Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball team has a full complement of 15 scholarship players this upcoming season.
Fourteen of those players will be available to play while Shaina Pellington sits out after transferring from Oklahoma. What will the team look like?
Guards: Lucia Alonso, Amari Carter, Aari McDonald, Bryce Nixon, Tara Manumaleuga, Helena Pueyo
The core of this group is, of course, junior point guard Aari McDonald. However, if the Wildcats want to take the next step forward, they will need to be a more balanced team—especially on offense.
Shooting was a problem last season. Far too often, McDonald was forced to take a shot late in the clock simply because her teammates were hesitant to shoot.
There were occasional nights where someone got the hot hand. Tee Tee Starks had some lights-out games from beyond the arc. Starks, Dominique McBryde and Lucia Alonso all shot over 38 percent while attempting at least 47 3-point shots, but the team just wasn’t reliable enough from range when they needed to be.
They also didn’t attempt many shots from distance. Only McDonald and Sam Thomas took over 100 shots from beyond the arc, and neither connected on a high percentage. As a team, the Wildcats’ 3-point shooting percentage was in the bottom half of the league despite taking fewer outside shots than nine of the 12 teams.
The Wildcats’ inability to spread the floor allowed opponents to clog the paint, keeping McDonald from driving in several critical games. Arizona coach Adia Barnes hopes that problem has been addressed with the incoming freshman class.
Based on the numbers, Helena Pueyo is the player most likely to fulfill Barnes’ wishes. Although she shot just 20 percent from 3 during the 2018 U18 European Women’s Championship, she was successful 37.1 percent of the time in 26 games for Segle XXI de Barcelona last season. Pueyo connected on 53 of her 143 3-point shots for the Spanish second-division team.
Grad transfer Amari Carter will also add some shooting. Although she is not as proficient as Pueyo, she was good on 41 of 124 3-point attempts last season. Her 33.1 percent shooting percentage was first among Penn State players with at least 40 attempts.
Small forwards/wings: Tee Tee Starks, Sam Thomas, Mare Mote
Starks came on strong late in the season when Alonso was out hurt. With a very short bench, the Wildcats desperately needed a reliable guard who could take some of the heat off of McDonald. Starks did such a superb job that she held the starting spot even after Alonso came back.
Earlier in the season, Starks was used as a defensive spark off the bench. There’s a chance she could return to that role, as injuries earlier in her career have left her with frequent pain. When Starks changed her mind and opted to return for her final season, Barnes said they would have to manage her time for that reason.
Thomas will provide her usual all-around game. The ultimate glue player, she won’t wow anyone with gaudy scoring numbers, but she will shoot for a high percentage, block shots, distribute the ball, and play tenacious defense.
Mare Mote’s stat sheet looks similar to that of Thomas. The incoming freshman is currently listed as a forward for her Latvian club and national teams, but has been listed as a guard in the past. We’ll just call her a wing and be done with it.
Mote has been playing for her local club, TTT Riga, in the LSBL since the 2016-17 season. She primarily plays for the club’s junior squad, TTT Juniores, though. Last season, Mote appeared in 28 games for TTT Juniores and 12 for TTT Riga.
For TTT Juniores, she averaged 15.1 ppg in just over 30 minutes per contest, shooting 48.2 percent from the field. From distance, she shot 31.3 percent. Her ability to find her teammates resulted in 3.1 assists per game. She also showed some ability to disrupt things on the defensive end by averaging 2.3 steals per contest.
The two teams met in the LSBL Championship series, showing just how dominant the club is in Latvian women’s basketball. Mote had 15 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in the TTT Juniores victory over RSU to open the semifinals round. Juniores went to take that series 2-1 before falling to TTT Riga in the championship series.
Power forwards/posts: Dominique McBryde, Cate Reese, Semaj Smith, Birna Bennonysdottir, Sevval Gul
Cate Reese and McBryde lead a deep group of inside players. Reese led the team in rebounding last season as a freshman and was second in scoring. McBryde was one of two players who shot over 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. She was also one of the leaders, taking on the role of on-court mentor to the freshmen.
Semaj Smith joins the contingent of returners. Her development over the course of the season was significant as she learned from vets like McBryde and Destiny Graham. This year, she should have even more opportunities to expand her role.
At 6-foot-5, Smith was the tallest player on the team last season. The incoming class will boost the size, allowing the Wildcats to counter some of the size their conference foes can throw at them.
Birna Bennonysdottir is another 6-foot-5 post player. She has been playing for Keflavik in the Iceland-Dominos league.
Bennonysdottir saw 17.4 minutes per game in the 2018-19 season, averaging 9.4 points per game on 52.4 percent shooting. In 2018, she averaged 12.8 ppg while playing for Iceland in the U18 European Championship. The same year, she got the experience of being on Iceland’s senior-level team at the European Championship, although she played very little.
While Bennonysdottir is ranked as a four-star international recruit by Prospects Nation, it does not appear they did much evaluation of the 2019 international class. It is difficult to evaluate her since the bulk of her play has been against a lesser level of competition in her domestic league.
Although Pueyo appears to be the jewel of the class, Sevval Gul is also very intriguing. Unlike Bennonysdottir, she has already spent considerable time around some of the best players in Europe and the world.
Gul has played for one of Europe’s top clubs, Fenerbahce, since 2015. She splits her time between Fenerbahce’s senior-level squad and the junior-level Fenerbahce G, although she sees little playing time with the senior-level squad. One of her teammates on Fenerbahce is current WNBA player and former Washington star Kelsey Plum.
It will be a United Nations when the team finally takes the court together this fall. It has the potential to be the most complete team Arizona has had in a while. With the development of the sophomore class and the addition of a few shooters, the Wildcats may be set to climb into the top half of the conference and make a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
To see how the men’s roster looks, go here.