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Arizona women’s basketball slowly integrating six newcomers

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Women’s Arizona at Stanford Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you stop by an Arizona women’s basketball practice, chances are you’ll hear assistant coach Salvo Coppa barking instructions in Spanish. Maybe even in Turkish.

The Wildcats added four international players in August, and while two of them—Latvia’s Mara Mote and Iceland’s Birna Benonysdottir—are perfectly fluent in English, Helena Pueyo (from Spain) and Sevval Gul (from Turkey) are not.

“Thank goodness Salvo speaks a lot of languages,” laughed head coach Adia Barnes, who’s also Coppa’s wife. “He’s definitely earning his money this year.”

The language barrier is just one of the major obstacles facing the freshmen as they adjust to life in Arizona.

Newcomers usually arrive in June, but they made their way to campus in August due to commitments with their respective national teams, meaning they missed offseason workouts and other critical team-bonding activities.

The first days of practice are about teaching, Barnes said, but even more so this year.

“It’s a lot slower,” she said.

The good news is the freshmen are entering the program with a high starting point. Barnes described them as skilled players with a high basketball IQ, partially stemming from the quality competition they faced at the FIBA level, which Barnes said is better than the top stages of AAU basketball in the United States.

“It’s not just like 50 games in the summer with no practices. It’s organized basketball,” she said. “So I think that’s a big advantage. Another advantage that they have off the court is they’re not leaving home for the first time.

“American kids, just like me, I was 17 when I came to college. I had never been away from home for more than a week of my life. Helena Pueyo from Spain, Sevvul Gul, Mara from Latvia, they all lived away from home in a different city. They were already in a dorm-like situation, so you don’t have the homesickness the first couple months.”

It helps that the freshmen are making the transition together too. Benonysdottir, a face-up 4, and Mote, a combo guard, are roommates. So are Gul, a 6-foot-4 versatile center, and Pueyo, a sweet-shooting wing.

They also have a pair of key mentors in senior Lucia Alonso, who was recruited out of Spain four years ago, and Barnes, who played overseas for nearly a decade where she was immersed in European culture.

“They’ve been really good at helping each other and creating really good relationships, which are important,” Barnes said of the freshmen. “An example is a couple of them won’t go home for Christmas. So my plans are going to change. I’ll stay here for Christmas for them. And so just little things like that. But ... I think it’s very difficult when you’re the only one. ... There’s cultural barrier changes. The food, the lifestyle, the sense of urgency, the pace of everything, it’s just really different. And I know that and I’m sensitive to that because I played overseas for 13 years. I’ve been on teams where no one spoke English, and so I know what that feels like. But I think when you’re young and you don’t know what that feels like, you don’t know how to be inclusive with that. So I think my job is to teach them. Like, I brought them all to a Turkish restaurant. ... I think it’s going to add to their lives. They’re going to learn different things and learn about different people, and travel.”

As far as on the court, the freshmen bring size, shooting, ball-handling, and depth to an Arizona team that is expecting to reach the NCAA Tournament this season, as it returns its entire starting five from last year’s WNIT championship squad.

How much the newbies actually contribute remains to be seen. Barnes said freshmen are usually marred by inconsistency. And even though this batch is more talented than previous classes, she expects them to have their fair share of hiccups.

“The level of our freshmen has improved, and it has every year that I’ve had this program, so they’re better, but they’re still freshmen,” Barnes said. “And the greatest thing about freshmen is they become a sophomore.”

Oh yeah, there are two transfers too

Arizona also added a pair of transfers, raising its roster total to 15 players, five more than it had at the start of last season.

“You have to do things where there isn’t 10 people in line,” Barnes said. “So managing that is very different because I feel like even when we run a sprint, it’s a width of the court. So we have to take a lot of time.”

Amari Carter, a graduate transfer from Penn State, could start at the 2, especially since Tee Tee Starks is currently battling an injury.

The 5-foot-8 Carter averaged 9.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game with the Nittany Lions last season. The Washington D.C. native appeared in 26 games, made 24 starts, and shot 41 for 124 (.331) from 3.

Before that, she was All-Big Ten Second Team in 2017-18 when she led the Big Ten in steals per game (2.6).

“Amari is smart, Amari’s won, Amari’s been a starter so she brings us experience,” Barnes said. “I love lefty guards and she’s a lefty guard that can shoot it. She can create her own shot—one of the few on our team that can. I think she’s going to be a very good compliment with Aari (McDonald). And she just brings a lot. She even brings a lot off the court.”

Junior Shaina Pellington joins Arizona after an up-and-down career at Oklahoma. She was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2017-18, but fell out of the rotation by the end of her sophomore year—and even served a one-game suspension for violating an undisclosed team rule.

Per the Norman Transcript, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale “indicated Pellington’s play during practice, and select games, as the reason her playing time declined.”

Last spring, Barnes said Arizona would only pursue transfers who were good, high character players, making the addition of Pellington a bit intriguing. But Barnes met with Pellington and had several conversations with her before bringing her in for a visit.

“I do believe in second chances and I think that this is a good fit for her,” Barnes said. “And I think that she’s aligned with what we’re doing. I love her hunger, her work ethic, and I think once you have to leave somewhere, and it’s your last opportunity somewhere, you also value things a little bit better. I’m sure she looks back and there’s decisions she probably made in college—just like all of us in our first couple years—that you wouldn’t make now. And that comes with maturity. But I think she’s very happy here. I think she’s a player that will really help us on and off the court.”

Pellington, who averaged 13 points per game in both seasons at Oklahoma, will redshirt in 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules. This summer, the 5-foot-8 guard was one of just two college players to suit up for the Canadian National Team as it played in FIBA events in Europe and South America.

“She wants to go play pro, so she brings us a huge part of culture, work ethic that’s important for this program,” Barnes said. “So I think that she’s going to be a good fit. And she’s an incredible athlete. She’ll be one of the best athletes we have. So I really wish she could play this year with Aari because those two together, and then with Tee Tee, we’d have an incredible defense. But I think one year for developing, getting used to things, taking a year to decompress and focus on school, I think it’s going to be more beneficial for her.”

Thanks to a deeper roster, Arizona is already holding more competitive practices than it did last season. The improved depth should help the Wildcats endure the long season too.

“I think that you’re going to see improved productivity because less minutes,” Barnes said. “Aari is not going to have to play 38, 39 minutes, 40 minutes. If you shave a couple minutes off each player, they’re more fresh and more productive. They have more legs to shoot the ball more efficiently. They have more legs and energy for defense. We don’t have to conserve anything. So we’ll be better in that sense.”