Everything fans, teammates, and coaches have been begging Helena Pueyo to do for over four years was on full display in the first exhibition game of her final college season. Pueyo’s passing, leadership, and defense have never been questioned, but she added the aggressive shooting touch she has been reluctant to employ in previous seasons. It not only helped Arizona women’s basketball defeat West Texas A&M 103-58 in McKale Center on Wednesday evening, but it also backed up Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes’ claims that Pueyo had bought into being more aggressive this season.
Pueyo ended with 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting. She hit four of five 3-point shots. She also had four rebounds, seven assists, one steal, and one block. She committed only one foul and one turnover in a game-high 33 minutes. Pueyo’s highest-scoring regular season game during her Arizona career was a 22-point effort last season.
She didn’t feel like it was something she had to force herself to do.
“It just comes in the game,” Pueyo said. “I don’t really think about it. If it’s an open shot, I just take it. But, I mean, I also like to pass the ball a lot, but with seven players, you have to take shots.”
Playing with seven players was something Arizona knew would be the case earlier in the week. Freshman Montaya Dew is out for the year. She was joined on the bench by freshmen Breya Cunningham and Skylar Jones and junior Courtney Blakely. Barnes mentioned on Tuesday that Cunningham and Blakely would be out. Jones sat out due to concussion protocol.
The absence of Jones and Blakely meant that Arizona had just three guards—Pueyo, Kailyn Gilbert, and Jada Williams. Not surprisingly, they all started and played a lot of minutes. On the interior, Barnes went with her two most experienced players, Esmery Martinez and Maya Nnaji.
Gilbert made her impression on the offensive end with a game-high 24 points on 10-for-18 shooting. She added seven rebounds, five assists, and five steals. She was happiest with the steals, but Barnes didn’t think that was the most important part of her defensive effort.
“Just because you have steals doesn’t mean you play defense, but she did play defense,” Barnes said. “She played really good on-the-ball defense. That was some of the best defense she’s played.”
Barnes said that last year, Gilbert was angry about being asked to defend. That has changed now.
“I know if I have a lot of points, but I don’t play defense, she’s not gonna play me,” Gilbert said. “So, I just have to play defense.”
It was an emotional night for some of the younger players who got to have their names announced as starters.
“To start as a freshman, great opportunity for Jada,” Barnes said. “And then...she was getting emotional for a second, saying that I’ve dreamed of this. Like, she dreamed of playing her first [college game]. It was really sweet, and I was thinking to myself, wow, you know, she is just a baby...And then Kailyn said, ‘You know, I didn’t think I’d be starting here,’ because she didn’t play a lot last year and it was hard. She also learned a lot as a freshman. So, I think these are the moments that are special as a coach.”
Perhaps the emotions of the night affected Williams. She was just 4 for 13 from the floor and missed all five of her 3-point shots. She found other ways to contribute, though.
“I thought Jada responded well,” Barnes said. “She was off tonight. She was ice cold. She’s a very good shooter. Ice cold today, but she still impacted the game and that’s an unselfish player. Usually, when you’re ice cold, you’re pissed off and you’re not playing defense. She was playing defense, fighting, 50-50 balls, and she still helped us, and she still earned minutes on the floor. So those are shots I’d love for her to keep on taking. I mean, all of us would. And then she fights and she’s a great teammate, so I thought she handled the environment perfectly.”
At one point in the first half, Arizona fought for an offensive rebound. It eventually ended up in the hands of Sali Kourouma, who was about to make a quick move to score in a crowded interior. Williams motioned to her teammate to kick the ball back out to her, settled her team, then they worked for a better shot.
In addition to Pueyo and Gilbert, Kourouma also had a big night. She was one of five players to score in double figures, along with the two guards, Martinez, and Nnaji. Kourouma ended the night with 14 points to go with two rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Martinez contributed 18 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and two steals. Nnaji added 15 points, six rebounds, and two steals.
While Barnes praised the unselfishness of the team, saying that playing team basketball helped them look more offensively skilled than they actually are, there are still things to be fixed.
The Wildcats’ old nemesis—the boxout—came back to haunt them. After outrebounding the Buffaloes 21-10 in the first half, Arizona ended up with a narrow 33-30 advantage on the boards.
“Second half was just too many long rebounds,” Barnes said. “So, we knew coming into this, as coaches we talked about coming into this game what one of our just weak points were. It was rebounding and boxing out. So, we just have to be more intentional about that and more disciplined, especially with long rebounds.”
There was also foul trouble. The game ended with four Arizona players saddled with at least three fouls. Gilbert ended the game with four. The Wildcats also shot just seven free throws while putting WTAMU on the line 12 times.
“When you’re tired, then you close out lazy, put your hands on,” Barnes said. “So, I think some of that and I think it was called a little bit tighter the second half. We were hand-checking, but I thought overall pretty good until, I say, third, fourth quarter. I say we played 25 minutes pretty good.”
Despite those shortcomings, it was overall what Barnes wanted to see because the players were looking to get each other involved. Six of her seven players had at least one assist and five had multiple assists.
“We’re a better offensive team this year with less talented offensive players overall, but because we’re unselfish, we share the ball, we make extra passes,” Barnes said. “So, we look like we’re a better shooting team when we’re not, but we will be because of the cohesiveness of the team. So, I’m proud of them for that because I think we’re gonna surprise a lot of people. I’m very confident that we will.”