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Arizona women’s basketball returners plan to punch first

arizona-womens-basketball-kailyn-gilbert-adia-barnes-esmery-martinez-helena-pueyo-maya-nnaji-dew Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona women’s basketball lost eight roster (five transfers, three graduated) players from last season and only has five returners on the roster. After another busy offseason with the transfer portal, Kailyn Gilbert, Helena Pueyo, Esmery Martinez, Maya Nnaji, and Montaya Dew all returned.

UA retained Gilbert after she tested her feet in the transfer portal and when she was going through her decision making, Barnes helped talk her through it. Gilbert said she was always at Barnes’s house and Barnes helped her look at the different programs she was looking at.

“I came in just to have one more talk and to make sure because she was really looking out for me,” Gilbert said. “Okay, this school I don’t know about playing style. So I really appreciated that, and we just had a talk and she was just saying, it’s a new team this year and new faces, so just kind of trust the process.”

Gilbert is a true scorer, but Barnes is looking for her to buy in on the defensive side.

“She has the ability to play defense and she just didn’t want to play defense,” Barnes said. “She never has, but she can. And we all know she can score. She can score better than probably anybody in the country, but she’s now taking pride in the other areas which she had to improve on and I’m proud of her. And so, she’s gonna play a really big role.”

Pueyo’s return was a question that loomed over last season but in the end decided to come back to UA for her fifth year after turning down a three-year pro contract. Barnes is looking for Pueyo to step into a bigger role this year and assert herself in every way. Pueyo’s character and being a leader by example is never anything Barnes has had to worry about in her career at UA.

“A great leader,” Barnes said. “Was not always vocal, that’s just kind of her character, but more vocal than she’s ever been. She’s not ever going to be like the rah-rah yelling in the locker room, but she speaks a lot more. She holds people accountable. She does everything right…She’s going to be the first one there, she’s not ever going to be last. So, she does all those things.”

Martinez flirted with the draft and the transfer portal at the end of last season and ultimately chose to come back to UA. Martinez played a big role for UA last season, averaging 10.5 points and 8.6 rebounds. During the offseason, Martinez spent time playing for the Dominican Republic at the XXIV Central American and Caribbean Games in San Salvador and won a silver medal. During the tournament, she shot 45 percent from three and said that was a key in her game that she was trying to develop.

“I want to play more of the three this year. So, trying to work on my handles and my shooting,” Martinez said.

Nnaji never thought about leaving and has big plans this season. Martinez said the team’s goal is to win the Pac-12 championship and having a chip on their shoulder could help them.

“When you’re an underdog, they don’t take you as seriously,” Nnaji said. “So, you just come in and destroy them, they don’t even know what happened to them, they don’t even know what hit them. So, that’s how we want to be. We want to be the one that punches first, not gets punched first.”

Unlike her fellow returners, Dew’s plans will be off the court this season. After enrolling a semester early, she was going to have a big role this year according to Barnes. Then came a knee injury two months ago.

Dew is working to get back, but she won’t play this season. It’s tough for the freshman, who lost her mom about a month after enrolling at Arizona. Being part of the team has helped her get through the difficult times.

“Just being around them and their high spirits just pick you up,” Dew said. “They’re always asking me if I’m okay...Just like my second family.”

Arizona will get to put this new roster on the court for the first time in an exhibition against West Texas A&M on Oct. 25.