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Spanish freshman Helena Pueyo meeting high expectations with Arizona Wildcats

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 29 Women’s UC Riverside at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you’re wondering what Arizona women’s basketball will look like in a couple of years, rewind to the 3:51 mark of the first quarter of Sunday’s win at Arizona State.

Junior guard Aari McDonald picked up her second foul, forcing her to ride the pine the rest of the period and most of the second quarter.

Last season the Wildcats, who were already facing an 11-6 deficit in Tempe, would have been doomed without their leading scorer. This time it was an opportunity for freshman Helena Pueyo to show why the future is so bright—for her and the program.

With McDonald watching from the bench, the Spaniard knifed into the lane, euro-stepped around a defender, and somehow banked in a reverse layup to bring the Wildcats within three.

Later, Pueyo drilled a corner 3 to give Arizona its first lead of the game. In between, she flung a pass to a rolling Cate Reese for a bucket, one of five assists on the day.

“I think about that a lot,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said two days later. “Helena is going to get better and better. She’s already improved so much from the beginning of the year. I think she’s just kind of showing a little bit of what she can do.”

That’s bad news for the Pac-12. Pueyo is already stuffing the stat sheet. She’s averaging 8.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.7 steals in 21.7 minutes per game, serving as a potent sixth-man for the 18th-ranked Wildcats.

“I really like the fact that she’s a tall guard, great shooter, but she always knows when to pass the ball,” said UA assistant Salvo Coppa. “She’s extremely unselfish and this probably makes her teammates like her more. And then when it’s time to take her shots, she’s going to take it.”

Pueyo is sinking 45 percent of her 3s, the best mark on the team and fourth-best mark in the Pac-12. Capable of playing on or off the ball, she has a tight handle and smooth, yet deceptive, quickness to accompany her 6-foot frame.

“She’s not an Aari,” said junior forward Sam Thomas. “She’s not gonna dribble behind the back and break you down, but then she’ll just be standing there and then all of a sudden she’s gone and you miss her. And it happens to me all the time in practice when I’m guarding her.”

Pueyo shook her head when asked if anything she’s done this season has surprised her. When posed with the same question, Barnes referred back to some comments she made before the season.

“I said she was gonna be a star in this league,” Barnes said.

She knew Arizona was adding a gifted offensive player when it signed Pueyo. What she didn’t know is what Pueyo could bring on the defensive end.

“Our question was like, ‘okay, can she defend in the Pac-12?’” Coppa said. “And this shows how smart she is—when she came here, she wasn’t a great defensive player. And she got better day by day. She was really focused on that aspect of the game because she knew that was very important (for Adia). She got better in a very short amount of time.”

Pueyo trails only McDonald for the team-lead in steal percentage.

“She’s long,” Barnes said. “Even to me, she won’t look like she’s in a passing lane and she’ll come up with a steal. Those are things that Sam Thomas does. So I think she’s gonna continue once she learns it and gets stronger...because they don’t really lift a lot of weights in Europe.”

Under Barnes, Arizona has shown a willingness to scan every inch of the map for talent. Its freshman class consists of five players from five countries.

Pueyo was easy to find. She starred for the Spanish national team and, despite her young age, put up solid numbers in the country’s second-best women’s league.

Convincing her to attend the UA was the challenge. Barnes doubts Pueyo would have signed with Arizona if Coppa wasn’t fluent in Spanish. She’s probably right. Pueyo said her trust in the coaching staff was a major factor in her decision to join the program.

Coppa likely earned it when he visited her family in Spain and spoke in their native tongue.

“It’s a different kind of Spanish than we speak in the States because there’s different dialects, so Salvo did a really good job,” Barnes said. “Spanish players are very difficult to recruit because their families usually don’t speak English. So if you don’t speak the language, it’s hard. And Google Translate, you can use that so much, but it’s hard to have a conversation. So I think that’s why a lot of people can’t recruit Spanish players.”

Pueyo’s transition to Tucson hasn’t always been as smooth as her jump shot. Barnes said she was home sick at first. Pueyo said her first days of school were “very, very hard” because of the language barrier.

But her English, like her game, is developing quickly. She’s learning the language by watching the popular sitcom Friends and conversing with her teammates, many of whom are adjusting to life in the States just like she is. Before last Friday’s practice, Pueyo was having a laugh with Australian freshman Tara Manumaleuga. Barnes said her bubbly personality is starting to show.

“Way better, you can tell,” senior Lucia Alonso said of Pueyo’s English. “When we are in team meetings she speaks more now.”

Alonso has been key in Pueyo’s assimilation. Alonso was in Pueyo’s shoes four years ago when she made the same move from Spain.

Her advice to her fellow countryman?

“Even if they don’t understand you, try to talk to everybody,” Alonso said. “Because that helps the chemistry. ... I remember on her visit she was super shy. I feel like going to class, hanging out with the team and everything helps the English. And I feel like in the court now she’s talking more. Maybe on defense, it’s ‘hey, switch.’ That helps a lot.”

A nutritional science major, Pueyo said her goal at Arizona is to graduate and become the best player she can be. Barnes said Pueyo, like all European players, hopes to go pro one day. Arizona’s recent history in player development is another reason it was an appealing destination.

McDonald, Reese, and Thomas have all improved leaps and bounds since joining the program, emerging as some of the top players in the Pac-12.

Pueyo appears to be next in line.

“It’s not, ‘will she be a pro?’, Helena will be a pro,” Barnes said. “So I think it’s where you can develop the best, and she saw that from the evidence that we showed, and she liked it. And we play a European style of game, so I think she knew it was good and she’s gonna excel here.”