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Arizona women’s basketball opens Pac-12 play in dominant fashion with win over ASU

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 29 Women’s Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Punch first. That’s what the Arizona Wildcats want to do every game. In their first game back after the holiday break, they did just that on the way to an 84-66 victory over their rivals from Arizona State in front of 9.495 fans.

UA head coach Adia Barnes wasn’t sure that was going to happen.

“I didn’t know what to expect today because think about just our last couple of weeks. We had a really high-high against Baylor,” Barnes said. “I thought we played our best game of the season. And then we were okay against UTA. Then it’s the Christmas break. And then we’re walking mentally into going three games in five days. So how are we going to respond?”

The Wildcats came out quickly, hitting six of their first seven shots while the Sun Devils went 0-3 to start the game. A 26-12 opening quarter set the tone for the game, and ASU was never able to present a real threat despite outscoring the Wildcats 18-16 in the second quarter.

“That’s something that’s been big for us, just starting off strong, not being flat,” said guard Jade Loville. “And I think we saw that in the Baylor game, just being aggressive in our traps, being able to run. I think when we start the game like that, we’re able to maintain it throughout the game.”

Before the game, senior Esmery Martinez was honored with a basketball marking her ascension into the 1,000-point club at UT Arlington on Dec. 20. It was foreshadowing.

Martinez led the Wildcats with her fourth double-double of the season. She had 21 points and 10 rebounds to go with an assist and a steal.

Martinez was one of four Wildcats who scored in double figures. Joining her were Shaina Pellington (14 points), Cate Reese (13 points), and Loville (12 points). Helena Pueyo barely missed that threshold with eight points.

Despite not scoring as much as her fellow starters, Lauren Fields had an impressive game with three assists against just one turnover and four steals without committing a foul. Her steals tied Pueyo for the game high.

“I didn’t even realize that Lauren only had a few points because it doesn’t matter,” Barnes said. “Because she did a lot of things that led to us scoring and us getting stops, so she continues to be a great starter for us.”

Loville, Pueyo, and Pellington led the team with four assists each. That has been a point of emphasis for the team, which as a group had 24 assists on 36 made baskets.

ASU’s Tyi Skinner showed why she is so important to the Sun Devils, scoring 26 points to go with four rebounds and three steals. She ran into foul difficulties, though, getting her fourth foul with 4:39 to go in the fourth quarter. She fouled out with just under two minutes left in the game.

“I think we need to be more tough on defense,” Skinner said.

The Sun Devils allowed Arizona to shoot 55.4 percent from the field. In the third quarter, the Wildcats connected on 70.6 percent of their shots.

As for Arizona’s defense, the frontcourt was able to limit its fouls while limiting ASU to 28 points in the paint. Maya Nnaji, Martinez, and Reese had a total of five fouls among them despite playing between 22 and 24 minutes each.

“Playing defense is the most important thing we had to do,” Martinez said.

Nnaji and her fellow freshmen all played extensively. Nnaji led the group with just under 24 minutes. Both Kailyn Gilbert and Paris Clark played around 15 minutes, and Lemyah Hylton got just under seven minutes of play.

“I think that playing those long minutes, you see they get a little bit fatigued, like Paris,” Barnes said. “And that’s just the adrenaline of the game. And the game speed’s different than practice. So, I think working them into shape a little bit better is really important. And letting them play through mistakes. You know, Kailyn had a few mistakes. We pulled her, then put her back in.”

The Wildcats were able to give the rookies considerable playing time because they outscored the Sun Devils by 14 in both the first and third quarters. Barnes had all four freshmen and sophomore Madi Conner on the court together for the final 4:44 of the game, allowing ASU to cut into what was once a 26-point lead.

“I think it’s good for them and it makes them better each game and that’s what we want long term,” Barnes said.