It was known that Arizona would be short one of its post players after junior forward Lauren Ware underwent surgery last week. It turned out that the Wildcats were even more shorthanded in the frontcourt when freshman Maya Nnaji was held out of the regular-season opener against Northern Arizona on Thursday night.
“She was medically cleared to play, but she’s just had really bad tendinitis and her knee was sore,” Barnes said. “So instead of playing with a sore knee, I’m more worried about the Pac- 12 and the season, so I just decided it wasn’t worth playing her. She was like 50-50 at shoot around today.”
The Wildcats defeated the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks in McKale Center 113-56 despite being shorthanded. Including their final exhibition game, it was the second straight time the Wildcats had scored at least 100 points. It was the most points they had scored in a regular-season game since scoring 109 against Oregon on Dec. 31, 2010.
Arizona came out with all three of its transfers in the starting lineup. Guards Lauren Fields and Jade Loville joined forward Esmery Martinez in the newcomer-heavy starting five. The group was rounded out by returning starters Shaina Pellington and Cate Reese.
It was a coming-out party for Martinez. The transfer from West Virginia had a double-double already in the second quarter. She ended the night with 20 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, a steal, and two blocks. She shot 6-for-8 from the field and hit 8 of 10 free throws.
The rebounding displayed by Martinez in both exhibitions and the season opener is something Arizona has not had in the Barnes era. Barnes noted that it’s not something that can be taught, but it’s not a rarity when it comes to Martinez.
“That’s what I see every day in practice,” Barnes said. “I think she has a really special knack for the ball.”
Martinez simply has the knowledge of where the ball will go, and she has the dedication to go get it.
“Thank God that He gave me that special gift,” Martinez said.
Pellington tied Martinez’s game-high 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting. She added two rebounds, seven assists, and three steals in 23.5 minutes. Her seven assists came against zero turnovers.
“With the newcomers coming in, it makes it a lot easier for me,” Pellington said. “Each and every single one of them can put the ball in the hoop very easily. So I mean, my strengths are driving to the basket and drawing and kicking. That’s something that I work on daily. So when I’m kicking it to people like Jade, when I’m able to dish it off to people like Esmery, it makes it a lot easier for me.”
Reese was making her own comeback of sorts. She was injured in the opening minute of the Wildcats' final exhibition game when she hit her head on the court. A week later, she was more than ready.
Reese was one of seven Wildcats to score in double figures, ending the night with 10 points, eight rebounds, an assist, two steals, and two blocks.
With Ware and Nnaji out, Arizona played a lot of small ball. It was a possibility that Barnes has hinted at in press conferences leading up to the season, but it became even more important with the change in circumstances.
When the news of Ware’s surgery broke, Barnes talked about players who might see more playing time as a result. Those names included Madi Conner, who played 12 minutes off the bench, scoring five points, grabbing a rebound, and getting one assist.
Fields had 10 points, as did Clark and fellow freshman Kailyn Gilbert. Clark filled the stat sheet, adding seven rebounds and six steals to her points
The offense was on fire, but Arizona did have some defensive lapses. The Wildcats lost Lumberjack shooters often in the first half. They were fortunate that their visitors didn’t make them pay.
“They weren’t running back,” Barnes said. “I felt like that we were buddy running so buddy running is like when....you’d like run next to your friend...and then you’re not sprinting back. So we talked about it. I don’t think we’re great at that yet. I think that that’s an emphasis of practice. And that is probably one of our deficits right now. But I think it was better today than it had been...but number one [Regan Schenck] would drive down the lane and pitch to shooters. We had a tough time, and she’s good at it. The person that was really containing her was Shaina. So when Shaina wasn’t on there, and there was some kind of switching, it was like open threes. And I think we were lucky that they missed some shots today.”
NAU shot better after the half, ending with a 33.9 shooting percentage and a 23.8 percent three-point shooting percentage. During the first 20 minutes, the Lumberjacks really struggled, hitting just 27.6 percent of their shots from their field including 27.3 percent from three-point distance.
Arizona also failed to force any turnovers in the first quarter. NAU did not have a turnover until 8:36 left in the half. They quickly turned the ball over 11 times in the second quarter and ended the night with 24.
As they did in both exhibition games, the Wildcats dominated the boards. They had 49 total boards with 22 on the offensive end of the floor. Those 22 offensive rebounds turned into 35 second-chance points.
“I’ve never played on a team better than the one I’m on currently right now,” Pellington said. “I think the sky’s the limit for this group. And as long as we continue to work together, and we have each other’s backs, I think we can go as far as we want to go this year.”
Arizona now prepares for CSUN, which will come to McKale Center on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 5 p.m. MST.