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Shorthanded Arizona women’s basketball prepares for first exhibition

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - Maryland Photo by Greg Fiume/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Arizona women’s basketball was already going to have a short bench this season. With injuries and transfers, there are ten healthy players. For the Wildcats’ first exhibition, that bench will be even shorter as freshman post Breya Cunningham and junior guard Courtney Blakely both sit out the game against West Texas A&M.

“We have seven right now, just because we’re holding people out,” said Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. “I don’t need to rush Breya back for an exhibition game. If we were playing a tournament, or the...opening game of the season, she’d play, but for me, it’s just like, okay, let her rest a few more days, get her completely healthy, and bring her back because we have a long season.”

While it’s unfortunate to have two of the six new players out, it will provide an opportunity for freshmen Jada Williams and Skylar Jones and sophomores Kailyn Gilbert and Maya Nnaji to get plenty of minutes against a quality opponent. Barnes believes that will pay off down the road.

“When I look at the big picture, we go to the Big 12 next year,” Barnes said. “Things are changing. I want this core to be together because I know that we coach and we teach and stuff, that core will be really good in a couple years. And so that’s the future versus the turnover every year. I don’t want eight new players every year. I just don’t. It’s hard with the way that we coach and how we play. We’re not super scout oriented...So my process is longer and I’m aware of that.”

As the group goes through that process, Barnes wants to see the development of chemistry and selflessness, which often go hand-in-hand. She is especially pleased to see a devotion to being a good teammate in her younger players. It’s a strength that some of them come in needing to develop. One player who has done that is sophomore guard Kailyn Gilbert.

“The thing I’ve noticed the most about her besides her passing—which we saw a little bit against West Virginia in the tournament last year—this year, you see a more vocal Kailyn, a better teammate,” Barnes said. “More of a selfless person.”

Others come in with those traits a bit more developed. Freshman point guard Jada Williams brings that to the table.

“She has a really good sense of emotional intelligence,” Barnes said. “She knows how to approach people. And just the maturity and what to say when in the heat of the moment. She gets it, and I think a lot of people don’t get that in general, especially freshmen. And she’s a great teammate. If she’s not playing, she’s cheering and I saw that when I watched her even with USA basketball, but I didn’t see it every day. And even on her bad days, she’s still a great teammate, so I love that about her. That’s the culture we want.”

Others will be trying to balance what may be too much selflessness with the needs of the current team. Fifth-year guard Helena Pueyo is the prime example.

“You look at her and where she’s from and how they play basketball,” Barnes said. “So, Spain has extremely high-level fundamentals. Great teaching, a great youth program that brings those kids up to play pro. But they play unselfish basketball. There isn’t one player on those national teams or youth national teams that shoots 20 times...They don’t take contested shots. So that’s how she plays. So she’s not going to go take four bad shots. So for me to tell her, ‘Okay, you need to take some of those contested shots.’ she’s kind of like that’s not a good shot, but for her it’s a good shot for what you need right now. So I think it’s just it’s a challenge because you want to play team basketball but we need her to score more, just because we’ve lost a lot of scoring, but she’s capable of doing it and she’s embraced that.”

The Wildcats will get the chance to see how it all plays out on Wednesday night against the Buffaloes. WTAMU gave Arizona a good contest last season with the Wildcats winning 86-63. The visiting team was especially strong late when it was only outscored by one point in the second half.

West Texas A&M Buffaloes @ Arizona Wildcats

When: Wednesday, Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. MST

Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Radio: Learfield

How to follow along

Follow us on X (Twitter) @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live posts of women’s basketball games and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.