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Crowd returns to see new-look Wildcats in Arizona women’s basketball’s first exhibition

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four Championship-Arizona vs Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The starting lineup and rotations were the biggest questions for the Arizona Wildcats heading into the season. Head coach Adia Barnes was asked if she was going to have any hockey-style line changes. She said that it was likely, and held true to her word in the Wildcats’ 84-25 exhibition victory over Division II Eastern New Mexico.

The first starting lineup of the season was one that didn’t look like it had a lot of shooting. In the backcourt, it was Shaina Pellington and Bendu Yeaney. Sam Thomas, Cate Reese, and Lauren Ware were featured in the frontcourt.

Yeaney had something to say about the idea that this backcourt combination would struggle to score. The senior scored the Wildcats’ first two field goals on a driving layup and a jump shot from the top of the key. She ended the night with nine points on 4-for-4 shooting to go with two rebounds, three assists, and four steals. The steals tied for the team lead with Pellington.

“Bendu...she’s worked a lot on her shot,” Barnes said. “You could see it. It’s much better.”

Unusual things kept happening. After several Wildcats launched and missed 3-point shots, Ware connected on the first outside shot for Arizona. Ware was just 2-for-6 from long distance all last season.

“Lauren’s improved on her 3, so we spread the floor,” Barnes said.

Then, came the hockey line changes. The second group to get their time on the court included just one returner—junior shooting guard Helena Pueyo. Pueyo was joined by freshman Aaronette Vonleh and transfers Taylor Chavez, Koi Love, and Ariyah Copeland.

Arizona fans had seen Chavez in the green uniforms of the Oregon Ducks for three years. For the first time, they were treated to her smooth shooting in a cardinal and navy jersey. Chavez was a perfect 3 for 3 from the 3-point line in the first half and ended the night with 12 points, tying Madi Conner for the team lead. Chavez added two rebounds, two assists, and a steal while Conner threw in three rebounds, an assist, and three steals.

The pair both grew up playing in the Phoenix area. They followed different paths, but now join forces representing their home state’s first university.

“We grew up competing against each other,” Conner said. “Go back home and we would play pickup ball together. We were coached by one of the same coaches. So she’s like my sister to me now even more now that we’re on the same team together.”

Both are also learning how important it is to play defense when you represent Arizona.

“I feel like that’s the standard here is to play hard on-ball defense and to really pride yourself on that,” Chavez said. “And I feel like that’s definitely something that I want to work on and get better at...Especially an exhibition game, that’s something I really wanted to work on.”

Copeland ended her night as Arizona’s second-leading scorer with 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting. She cleaned up the boards with six rebounds and added three blocks.

Barnes did her third line change with just over a minute left in the opening quarter. In came Anna Gret Asi, Conner, Derin Erdogan, Gisela Sanchez, and Semaj Smith.

Asi showed her point guard background, tying Pellington and Pueyo with a team-high four assists. Fellow freshman Sanchez demonstrated an aggressive scorer’s mentality with seven points on 3-for-5 shooting to go with two rebounds and an assist in 12 minutes of play.

“She’s bouncy, she’s a good defender, she can shoot the 3,” Barnes said about Sanchez. “She has the chance to be very good. I’m excited about her. Right now, I’m playing her in kind of multiple positions, but today she mainly played the four because she gives us versatility with a stronger five.”

Love was injured with 3:43 to go in the first half after playing just five minutes. An opponent’s head came into contact with her mouth and she spent several seconds bent over on the court. Barnes said that there was a great deal of blood, but Love did not suffer a concussion and should be fine in a few days.

The game was played in front of 5,984 fans who were the first to watch an Arizona women’s basketball game at McKale Center since February 2020.