Arizona women’s basketball is used to playing in front of huge crowds. Last season, the Wildcats led the Pac-12 and finished sixth in the nation in attendance with an average crowd of 7,822 fans at their home games. It won’t be much different when they travel to New Mexico for this Sunday’s matchup against the Lobos except that the large crowd will be rooting against them.
UNM was 19th in attendance last season. An average crowd of 4,191 fans came to cheer the Lobos on when they played in the Pit. It hasn’t changed this season.
“It’s very hard to play in the Pit,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “They had like 5000 people for the ASU game, so I think it’s gonna be hard there. I think it’s gonna be a game they really publicize. Difficult to play at their place.”
Senior Jade Loville knows that well. As a member of the Boise State Broncos during her first three years of college, she made regular trips to play in Albuquerque. She’s been able to share those experiences with her teammates.
“I told them that Albuquerque is the Tucson of New Mexico,” Loville said. “That was our biggest game in the Mountain West. So going there, we could expect a lot of fans. They come out and they support. And I tried to explain the court...[Y]ou’re in that little rectangle, but then the Pit is higher than you, so it feels like everyone’s kind of just looking down and it’s fun to play. It’s a lot of fun. I think we embrace those situations.”
While UNM lost to ASU 83-77 in overtime two weeks ago, the Lobos didn’t lose many home games last season. In fact, they lost just once at home during the 26-10 run that ended in a close loss at Oregon State in the WNIT round of 16. It was definitely a show worth seeing.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, the Pit won’t be the first road venue they’ve played in this season. Although the attendance at last week’s The Dana on Mission Bay Thanksgiving Classic was not great, Arizona was able to experience a situation where they did not have their thousands of fans feeding them energy.
“I just got to see how we’re gonna respond on the road,” Barnes said. “Just facing someone else who we weren’t that familiar with outside of McKale.”
The players had to find other ways to motivate themselves. It’s not something an experienced player finds difficult.
“You have that instilled in you from a young age just to be able to compete and play basketball,” Loville said. “So this is something that we love to do. So I think just being out there with your teammates, your sisters, and creating your own energy in warmups, you know in our pregame talks. When we go in the locker room, it’s a lot of yelling, cheering, and I think that just creates all of that energy. And that’s the fun part. We do it for ourselves. It’s always for our fans, but when we’re in a situation where there’s other fans, we do it for us. We’re gonna be the same team, have the same energy, and just embrace the challenge.”
UNM is a different team this year. The heartbreaking loss in Corvallis was the last game for Jaedyn De La Cerda and Antonia Anderson. They were two of five players who averaged double figures for the Lobos. De La Cerda led the team with 14.3 points per game while Anderson was fifth with 11.2 PPG.
Fortunately for the Lobos, the other three of those double-digit scorers have returned. Shaiquel McGruder, LaTascya Duff, and LaTora Duff have all picked up right where they left off last season.
McGruder scored 14.2 PPG for her team last season. She’s contributing 14.0 so far this year. The team’s leading scorer is close to a double-double with a team-high 8.7 rebounds per game to go along with her points.
LaTascya Duff has gone from 12.0 points last year to 13.0 this season. LaTora Duff has also increased her scoring average, going from 12.0 last season to 12.7 now.
As a team, UNM was an offensive juggernaut over the past two years. Last year, they averaged 103.2 points per 100 possessions. It was an even higher 106.5 in 2020-21. They have dropped down to 89.5 in the early part of this season, but they are also slightly better on defense.
Last year, the Lobos allowed opponents to score 92.9 points per 100 possessions. So far this season, they have whittled that down to 88.4.
“High octane offense,” Barnes said. “Coach [Mike] Bradbury’s a really good coach that runs a lot of really good offense. And if you remember, they played us pretty well here for a while last year. And they score fast, and I think we saw over the weekend that we struggle with that a little bit when people come down and jack up threes or drive really hard.”
Last year, the Wildcats emerged victorious by a score of 77-60 at McKale Center. The game was tied after the first quarter and Arizona led by just three at the half. The score did not become lopsided until the Wildcats outscored the Lobos 22-13 in the third, then followed it up with a 20-15 fourth quarter.
LaTora Duff had a strong game against as one of just two players who reached double figures. Her 14 points against the Wildcats were better than her season average. However, both LaTascya Duff and McGruder were held below their season averages. LaTascya Duff had eight points, but she grabbed eight rebounds. McGruder also had eight points. The Wildcats kept her off the boards, allowing her to corral just one rebound.
Arizona is also a very different team this season. Most of the team that faced the Lobos last season is gone. Only four players from last year’s team will walk onto the court in Albuquerque. Cate Reese, Shaina Pellington, Helena Pueyo, and Madi Conner are the only Wildcats who are both healthy and returned from last season’s team.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they should be back at full strength. Except for Lauren Ware, who was lost for the year before the season started, Barnes indicated that they were healthy. Last weekend, they played without Pellington, who had injured her ankle. The week before, they were without freshman guard Paris Clark, who was in concussion protocol.
“[Pellington] could have played [last weekend],” Barnes said. “She was like 80 percent. To have her play, and then have it linger when we have some pretty big games coming up, I just didn’t want to chance it.”
The two games off gave other players an opportunity to shine. Freshmen Kailyn Gilbert and Maya Nnaji both had big outings. Gilbert’s shot at extra playing time earned her the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honor. Senior Helena Pueyo started both games, setting a career high in scoring with 22 points against San Diego.
No. 14/13 Arizona Wildcats (6-0, 0-0 Pac-12) @ New Mexico Lobos (4-3, 0-0 MWC)
When: Sunday, Dec. 4 at 1 p.m. MST
Where: Dreamstyle Arena (The Pit) in Albuquerque, New Mexico
TV: Mountain West Network
Streaming: Mountain West Network
Radio: Listen to the call by Derrick Palmer online on The Varsity Network or on the radio at KTUC 1400 AM.
Stats: New Mexico Live Stats
Rankings and ratings: The Wildcats are ranked No. 14 in the AP Top 25 and No. 13 in the WBCA coaches poll. They are ranked No. 20 in the Her Hoop Stats ratings. They have the No. 19 offense and the No. 26 defense according to the stats service.
The Lobos are not ranked in either major poll. They are ranked No. 170 in the HHS ratings. They are No. 137 on offense and No. 105 on defense according to the stats service.
Projections: Her Hoop Stats gives Arizona a 91.2 percent win probability on the road. The projected point total is 80.3 to 62.4 for a 17.9 winning margin in the Pit. The Wildcats would have a 96.1 win probability at home and a 94.1 on a neutral court.
History: Arizona leads the all-time series 14-9. The Wildcats are currently on a four-game winning streak that stretches from Dec. 7, 2010 to Dec. 12, 2021. This game is the second part of a home-and-home agreement between the two programs.