Sam Thomas is the only player still on the Arizona roster who was around when NAU defeated the Wildcats in 2017. She was still the only player to remember a Lumberjack victory when Arizona left the Walkup Skydome on Friday with an 82-55 win.
Last season in Tucson, NAU trailed by just six points at the half. Arizona had no interest in letting the Lumberjacks hang around this time. The Wildcats ran out to a 23-7 lead in the first quarter. NAU had just two points with 1:05 to go in the opening period.
“We knew we could speed them up and we knew we could press them and that’s what we’re good at,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “So we feel like we can do that against any team. Obviously going deeper into our bench with different lineups with three freshmen, our press wasn’t as effective, but that’s to be expected. It’s still learning and there’s a lot of teaching moments in this game that are going to help us for the future. But the main objective was to give people opportunities and give people confidence and I think we did that.”
Arizona substituted early and often. All 14 available players had logged time by the end of the first half. Only the injured Lauren Ware didn’t see time on the court. With the liberal substituting came some disorganization on both offense and defense, allowing NAU to close the lead a bit towards the end of the first half. That disorganization reared its head again late in the game, but Barnes didn’t want to call timeouts with a big lead.
The Wildcats feasted in the paint. The team scored 52 of its 82 points inside. Most of those were scored by the bench, which accounted for 56 of Arizona’s points. The Wildcats also scored 28 points off 22 Lumberjack turnovers.
Aaronette Vonleh was especially effective for the Wildcats in the opening half, scoring 11 points. After missing all five of her free throws going into the game, the freshman went 3 for 4 from the line on Friday. She ended the game with 17 points on 7 for 10 shooting, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals to go with 4 personal fouls.
The fouls were a concern for Barnes. She felt that Vonleh was trying to do more than she was in a position to do.
“She’s going for block shots way too much and she’s out of position,” Barnes said. “So I have to teach her that. We have to show her film because she wants to learn. She has to be a little bit more disciplined knowing when to go for something, when not to. Her defense on the block has improved tremendously, but she doesn’t have to go for a steal every time. She got a couple fouls trying to reach through people. And I told her you work to get someone off of the block, then be solid and play behind them, because you already did your job early. So it’s just teaching.”
With none of the starters playing more than 15 minutes, Arizona’s newcomers and youngsters led the way. In addition to freshman Vonleh, transfer Koi Love had a season-high 10 points to go with 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 steals. The only negative aspect of her game was three turnovers.
“Koi is learning to finish (through) just a little bit more contact more aggressively,” Barnes said. “But more importantly for me on the defensive end, just a lot more solid, better on-the-ball defense, more disciplined on the ball, which was something I was really impressed with. Then the second part of that, offensively attacking the rim more. Asserting herself. Looking to score. Those are things that I expect from Koi, so just happy to see that she’s really coming along. I said from the beginning that she would.”
Freshman Madi Conner had her second straight big game from outside. She went 4 for 6 from 3-point distance on the way to 12 points. She added a rebound, an assist, and a steal, but also committed four fouls.
“Madi is taking advantage of her opportunity,” Barnes said. “I thought she’s getting so much better defensively, being able to keep people in front of her. But if you look at Madi’s stats, she’s 4 for 7 from the field, 4 for 6 from the 3, 12 points. She continues to perform solid. She had the best efficiency rating. She was at a positive 27 efficiency rating.”
The Wildcats’ fans suffered a bit of a scare when senior Cate Reese briefly left the game about three minutes into the third quarter with a cut on her right elbow. The training staff taped her arm and she re-entered the game with four minutes to go in the third. After the game, Barnes verified that Reese was fine.
The Wildcats will leave Flagstaff tonight to travel to Las Vegas in preparation for Sunday’s game against No. 11 Texas.