Arizona had not been tested in the early season. The Wildcats’ game against Kansas was the first team ranked above No. 129 in the NET that Arizona faced in the early going. With a majority of the Wildcats having never played as a ranked team against another team that should be ranked, it was a new experience for almost the whole roster. It didn’t turn out to be a good experience, as the Jayhawks blew out the Wildcats 77-50 in McKale Center.
“They out-hustled us, outmuscled us, and just did what they wanted,” said Arizona head coach Adia Barnes.
Among the starters, only Shaina Pellington and Cate Reese were on the roster when the Wildcats played for a national title two years ago. Of the healthy players on the bench, only Helena Pueyo and Madi Conner were on that team. Most of the team wasn’t even here last season.
Barnes did not want to be used as an excuse, though. She said that it could be a reason for nerves, but the issues that occurred during the game were issues that they have discussed repeatedly in practice. It reminded her of the last time the Wildcats lost in McKale Center—against North Carolina in last season’s NCAA Tournament.
“This was a wake-up call and I think probably it’s probably what we needed because we have not arrived,” Barnes said. “There were glaring things that we did that we do every day in practice. They were exploited in the game. So I think that this will be a chance for us to get better and see what we need to work on, and it’s the same as the things we’ve been talking about the last month or so.”
The Wildcats looked like a bunch of individuals instead of a team. Whether that’s a result of this year’s Arizona team consisting primarily of players who were the go-to players on other teams last season is up for debate, but Barnes has mentioned this season that they need to get used to being part of a team rather than “the woman.” Almost all of them were “the woman” on either their high school team or another college team in 2021-22.
Reese seemed to be the only Wildcat who was ready at tip. Only four Arizona players scored in the first half. Reese had nine of the Wildcats’ 22 points. No one else had more than the five scored by Pellington and Jade Loville.
When Reese went to the bench with two fouls with over four minutes to go in the first half, the Jayhawks took off and never looked back. They went on an 8-0 run to end the half. Arizona didn’t score for over 3:30 as the second quarter ended with the visitors up by six.
“The funny thing is, how bad we played in the first half,” Barnes said. “The last 14 minutes of the first half, we were 2-for-26 and we were still in the game. Down six, which was shocking because normally in the Pac-12 we would be down by 30. But it’s 22 to 28 at the half, and then came out in the third quarter without a sense of urgency and still got out-hustled for loose balls and stuff.”
KU picked up exactly where it left off. The Jayhawks outscored the Wildcats 26-11 in the third quarter and 23-17 in the fourth.
Arizona shot 30.9 percent from the floor and 19 percent from 3 for the game. At the free-throw line, the Wildcats were just 4-9 while the Jayhawks were 16-18.
Barnes said much of that could be attributed to the Wildcats being intimidated by the Jayhawks’ 6-foot-6 forward Taiyanna Jackson. Jackson had three blocks, but Barnes said the bigger issue was that Arizona was afraid of going against her. The players altered their own shots or took bad outside shots in response to her when they shouldn’t have.
“She’s a really good player,” Barnes said. “I think she’s underrated. Definitely, I think she’s one of the top posts in the country. Just with her length, she made us alter shots. We probably missed, I’d say, 12 layups in the first half. And what I tried to remind the team was think of some of the greatest shot blockers in the country. They average, what? Two shots blocked shots per game? That’d be like one of the nation’s leaders. Maybe three. So if you go, you don’t need to alter your shot because you’re gonna get fouled and sent to the free throw line more than you’re gonna get, statistically, more than a blocked shot. But she had us double pumping.”
Barnes took responsibility for the team not doing what they should have, but she said it wasn’t about preparation.
“There was nothing that they did that we haven’t guarded or weren’t prepared to guard,” Barnes said. “It’s just the execution in the game.”