It’s a tough question. Arizona women’s basketball has relied on Cate Reese to score in double digits and average at least six rebounds for the better part of four seasons. With her injury against Washington State on Feb. 20, now the Wildcats must find a way to fill that gap. How do they do it?
“The first person we’re obviously looking to, Koi (Love) has been in, she’s healthy, just Koi stepping up and I think she’s hungry and ready and knows the importance of these games,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “Then it’s going to be by committee. Lauren (Ware) knows she has to step up. She had an amazing practice yesterday. So those are the bigs so far. (Aaronette Vonleh) has been great. Nettie’s a freshman and this is the time when the freshmen, all of them, hit the wall and even some upperclassmen. So, working Nettie and she has a big opportunity. Gisela (Sanchez), I think they’re really important. And Semaj (Smith) has been practicing well, and then (Ariyah Copeland’s) coming back. So, Ariyah was practicing (Tuesday).”
Reese accounted for 12.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game over her first three seasons in Tucson as she played along with the high-scoring Aari McDonald. This season, she was having her best season with 14.6 PPG. Although her 6.2 RPG are a bit under her career average, they are a step up from the 5.1 RPG she grabbed as a junior.
Barnes said that Reese had an MRI once she arrived back in Tucson. Reese has a better range of motion than expected, but they do not foresee her playing until at least the championship game of the Pac-12 Tournament (if they advance) or the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, at the earliest.
The competition to step in her starting spot is up in the air. So is every other starting spot, according to Barnes.
“I just felt like we’re very comfortable,” Barnes said. “And a lot’s going on in school, but there’s always going to be stuff going on. I think we kind of hit this wall last year, but I felt that the effort and the sense of urgency and those things we always have weren’t there the last couple of weeks. So I have to find a way to get that. It wasn’t there at Washington State. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about getting the 50-50 balls, wanting it more, not letting someone do the same thing. It’s discipline things and mental things that I just can’t allow and can’t accept. So, challenging the team where we have to get better at those things, and...we had an amazing practice yesterday. Probably one of our best of the year. And you know, it’s open. So, now there are no starters. So we’ll see. We’re statting everything, and that’s from basketball stuff, that’s statistical stuff, like on the stat sheet, all those things, but then it’s also the passion plays, it’s energy, it’s touches, and it’s body language.”
What do the options in the frontcourt bring to the table?
Arizona brought in two freshman bigs and two transfers in the offseason, but there are challenges for all of them when it comes to replacing Reese’s production. Arizona could choose to start Copeland at the five and move sophomore Ware to the four. Barnes has stated that Copeland is a five, while Ware can be a four.
The challenge is that Copeland has not played since Feb. 4 against Oregon. She has been out with recurring migraine headaches. On Feb. 22, she said she was feeling “much better” in a post on Twitter, but Barnes told the media last week that she expected Copeland back for the trip to Washington. There’s no way to know if the issue will reoccur and keep Copeland out yet again.
Even before Copeland began struggling with her health, she wasn’t playing a lot of minutes. She has not played double-digit minutes since the Jan. 15 loss at Oregon. Is she in any condition to step in for someone who has played as many as 40 minutes and averages 26.5 minutes per game?
A player who has been playing more minutes of late is freshman Sanchez. She began getting a few minutes per game on Jan. 21 against Utah and has appeared in every game since except the road game at Arizona State. The 6-foot-3 forward from Spain is an active player on both offense and defense, but she is still learning. Her best game in Pac-12 play was her eight-point, five-rebound effort in 17 minutes at Washington.
Fellow freshman Vonleh is also an option, but she has only played 13 minutes in five Pac-12 games. Vonleh had some nice games early in the season, including a 17-point effort in 25 minutes at Northern Arizona, but she has even less experience than Sanchez against Pac-12 opponents.
Senior center Smith may find herself on the court, as well. Smith filled in for Dominique McBryde two years ago when McBryde went down to injury, but Smith has not appeared much in the past two years. This season, she has played sparingly in eight games, only two of them in Pac-12 play.
As Barnes stated, the primary option to start for Reese is likely to be Love. Love has scored in double digits in three of her last four appearances. Her biggest challenge is on defense where she is prone to fouling. She has at least three fouls in five of her last eight appearances, getting whistled four times in three different games.
At 6-foot-2, Reese is one of the tallest players on the team. She has started alongside 6-foot-5 Ware. Ware has been effective at altering shots and helping the team stay on task with her leadership, she has not been much of a threat to score. She averages 5.2 PPG and 3.5 RPG over the entire season, but that has dropped to 3.8 PPG and 2.7 RPG in conference play.
Regardless of who comes in to take over Reese’s position, Arizona may need more from Ware to maintain a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Wildcats are currently fourth, occupying the final bye, but can move up depending on how Washington State and Oregon do this week. Being third means missing Stanford in the semifinals of the conference tournament.