The injury musical chairs continued for Arizona women’s basketball on Sunday evening. Freshman forward Maya Nnaji returned after sitting out one game due to pain in her knees. Her place on the bench was taken by fellow freshman Paris Clark when the Wildcats took on Cal State Northridge. If junior forward Lauren Ware is included, Arizona has been without at least one player in every game this season, including both exhibition games.
“Last year, we had so many players,” said Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is way too many players. It’s so many people.’ And then we’re opposite this year. We have the right amount of players that I wanted, and then we’ve just had so many random things, like a lot of different small injuries.”
On Sunday, Clark was held out for precautionary reasons. She had a severe headache. Clark recently spent some time in concussion protocol, so the staff did not want to push the issue.
The absences have not cost the Wildcats yet this season. They improved to 2-0 on the season with an easy 87-47 win over the Matadors.
It was a strong debut for Nnaji and a nice follow-up for freshman guard Kailyn Gilbert. The pair were two of five Wildcats to score in double figures. It was Gilbert’s second straight game with 10 or more points to start her college career.
Nnaji entered the game early in the first quarter to considerable applause from the Wildcat faithful. The fans were relieved to see their star freshman on the floor. She was more than happy to be there.
“It was like a dream come true,” Nnaji said. “I’ve worked my whole life for this. Arizona was my dream school. I see my future here and I was just really excited to finally take the court in front of McKale fans. The atmosphere was electric. It was great to play with my teammates out there and getting the win.”
Nnaji looked more than ready. She scored 14 points on 3-for-5 shooting. Her size was difficult for the Matadors to deal with as they sent her to the line nine times. Nnaji connected on eight of those free throws. She also had four rebounds, one assist, and three blocks.
Gilbert also announced herself for the second straight game. She had a game-high 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting to go with three rebounds, one assist, and three steals.
The other players who scored in double figures for Arizona were Esmery Martinez (15), Cate Reese (14), and Jade Loville (12). As a team, the Wildcats shot 49.1 percent from the field, including 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. They also hit 83.3 percent of their free throws.
Despite their scoring prowess, both Gilbert and Nnaji showed that they were freshmen. The young guard had three turnovers to go with no assists.
Both players dealt with foul trouble in a game that was marred by fouls. Five Arizona players ended with at least three fouls. Nnaji was one of two Wildcats with four fouls.
“When you’re out of position, you’re gonna foul,” Barnes said, noting that her team fouled 24 times. “We talked a lot about that. Just getting better defensively. We didn’t run good offense, and we scored 87 points. So, scoring isn’t the problem but defending is an area we have to get better at. So I’d say positioning one pass away, positioning on the ball, footwork on closeouts, those are habits, and it’s like hundreds of hours of repetition. And we’re gonna work on that because we’re not in the stance a lot, we’re standing up or we don’t jump to the ball...[W]hen your fundamentals aren’t good defensively, you foul.”
Making adjustments to playing defense at this level, especially for a defensive-minded coach like Barnes, is something the players know they need to address.
“I feel like that’s my biggest struggle right now, is to make sure that we pick up full court,” Gilbert said. “So just like turning and just getting used to the movements. I’m still working on it, but I feel like I’m getting better every day.”
Barnes is excited about the offense that Gilbert and many of the other new players bring, but she agrees that defense is what they struggle with most at this point. Barnes joked that while Gilbert is “instant offense,” her man will already be dribbling up the court while Gilbert is still celebrating scoring.
“That’s freshman stuff,” Barnes said while laughing. “I tell you, the best thing about sophomores is they’re not freshmen anymore.”
Barnes doesn’t believe those issues will persist for long simply because both Gilbert and Nnaji are committed to working and improving areas that might not be “bright spots.”
“That’s what I like about them a lot and respect,” Barnes said.