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No. 18 Arizona women’s basketball narrowly escapes the upset bid by California

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 30 Women’s - Arizona at Stanford Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Was Arizona looking ahead to Monday’s game against No. 2 Stanford? Were the Wildcats emotionally or physically drained from their rivalry game against ASU followed by traveling to the Bay Area? Was California just ready for the challenge?

It could have been any of those things or all of them. What is definitely true is that Saturday evening’s game in Berkeley was too close for comfort for the Wildcats. They responded, though, and walked away with the 63-56 victory.

“I thought the game was really ugly and sloppy, but we found a way and figured out a way to win on the road in the Pac-12,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “I’m proud of that. I’m proud that we took their punches, and we weathered the storm a little bit. We made some mistakes and missed some shots, handled some adversity with the way the game was called, but that’s life on the road in the Pac-12.”

As for how the game was called, it would turn out to have a big effect on Arizona. Stalwart forward Esmery Martinez fouled out in just 13 minutes of play and starting point guard Shaina Pellington ended the game with four fouls.

Arizona was led by Pellington with 12 points, three rebounds, four assists, and two steals, but her game wasn’t as smooth as it has been recently. She started very well, finding her teammates when lanes were closed and going to the rack when they weren’t. As the game wore on, though, she appeared to try to force things a couple of times.

Cate Reese had 13 points, a team-high seven rebounds, two assists, and one steal. She disappeared at some points, scoring just four points on 2-of-7 shooting in the first half. But the fifth-year senior refused to give in to defeat, scoring seven points and grabbing three boards in the final quarter when her team needed her the most.

The Wildcats came out strong from the tip, building an 8-2 lead at the 6:45 mark. Then, things started to go off track.

Martinez was inadvertently poked in the eye with 6:41 to go in the quarter, and she had to be taken to the locker room. Arizona pushed its lead to 10-2 with 5:36 on the clock, but that’s where it stalled.

Cal went on its own 8-2 run to end the opening period down two.

Martinez was able to return to the game at the beginning of the second quarter, but she didn’t seem as sharp as she usually is. She never got back on track.

After grabbing four rebounds before exiting the game in the first quarter, Martinez wouldn’t get another one all night. The four boards were her lowest total of the season. She scored just two points before fouling out, although she did have two assists and two steals.

The Wildcats had difficulty maintaining consistency on both offense and defense. After the return of Martinez, they went on a run and built a 16-point lead with about a minute to go in the first half. As they went into the locker room up by 13, it appeared that they might cruise to their second straight Pac-12 win.

It wasn’t that easy. The Wildcats fell into old habits off and on throughout the game. They lapsed into periods of not moving without the ball and not sharing it as well as they have in recent games. They also started to break down on defense in the second half.

Much of that had to do with being forced to do things they’re not used to. Foul trouble was a big contributor to that, with both Martinez and Pellington either on the bench or trying to manage their intensity.

“It gave us a different look,” Barnes said. “We had to play a little bit bigger when they were going smaller, so I think just having different people in different positions. Then Shaina got in a little bit of foul trouble, so we lost a little bit of aggressiveness. I think just having people at different positions didn’t enable us to run stuff, and then just going small and facing the zone just kind of threw us off rhythm.”

The Golden Bears kept fighting. They won the third quarter by two points, entering the final period down by 11.

Things got even more difficult for the Wildcats when Martinez fouled out with almost five minutes left to go in the game. The ensuing free throw by Cal cut Arizona’s lead to three points.

Instead of bringing in one of her more experienced reserves, Barnes put freshman Kailyn Gilbert in when Martinez fouled out. It was yet another vote of confidence for the rookie guard.

“Came in strong, came in with some scoring punch when we had droughts,” Barnes said. “But I think—we all know she can score—most impressive was the way that she rotated, the way that she was on assignment with stuff we did that followed the game plan, and really did a good job. I think one closeout she kind of missed, but was solid defensively and I think that’s going to really help her get playing time. And how a coach gets confidence in a player is putting them in in situations that are hard and she came in and she proved that she could do it, so I think that’s really good....She got the money award and she got the energizer bunny because she gave us a spark, so that was huge her for her. Her first one.”

The “money” and “energizer bunny” awards are two of several post-game awards given out after each game to honor specific contributions.

Gilbert and fellow freshman Maya Nnaji both ended the night with double-digit minutes despite Cal coming back to tie things up with 6:20 to play and again getting within a point with 2:02 to go.

Nnaji had six points, four rebounds, and one steal in 12 minutes. Her ability to come in and play big minutes as Martinez dealt with injury and fouls was crucial to the win. Gilbert ended her night with 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting and two rebounds in 13 minutes of play.

Although it was an uneven effort, there were positives for the Wildcats. Most vital to the victory was keeping the Golden Bears’ two highest scorers in check over the first half and limiting both to less than their season averages.

Jayda Curry led the Pac-12 in scoring last season, becoming the first freshman to ever accomplish that feat. Her 15.8 PPG lead the Bears again this season, but Arizona held her to 0-for-5 shooting through the first 20 minutes. She hit her first bucket of the night with 4:58 to go in the third quarter.

Curry ended the night 4 for 18, including 2 for 11 from beyond the arc. The Wildcats also hassled her into committing 6 turnovers. She wound up with 13 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in 37 minutes of play.

Kemery Martín, the Bears’ second-leading scorer this season, went 2-5 in the first half. Her night ended just below her season average with 11 points to go along with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 turnovers.

Arizona harassed Martín and Curry into committing half of Cal’s 18 turnovers. The Wildcats converted those turnovers into 16 points.

“We still figured it out and found a way to win, so that’s why I’m so proud.” Barnes said.

Arizona will need to be much more consistent and disciplined on Monday. Going up against No. 2 Stanford is tough under the best of circumstances. Playing the Cardinal in the third game of the weekend is definitely not the best of circumstances. Stanford dominated ASU 101-69 on Saturday.