On Tuesday, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said that the Wildcats would likely play their final exhibition with just six players. By game time, that number had dwindled to five with starting forward Esmery Martinez joining Helena Pueyo, Skylar Jones, Courtney Blakely, and Breya Cunningham on the sidelines. Montaya Dew is out for the season.
“It doesn’t matter if we have five or 12 people ready to play,” said sophomore forward Maya Nnaji. “We got to go no matter what. Whoever’s out there has just got to hold the rope for the rest of the team.”
The Wildcats pushed through, defeating Point Loma 52-44 in a game that forced the players to deal with the emotional and physical challenges of playing without subs. Despite their low numbers on the bench, they went 19 for 40 from the field and 13 for 17 from the line.
“I’m proud of their fight,” Barnes said. “They tried. They gave effort. They didn’t quit. At times, I was like, ‘Do you want to go to timeout?’ They were like, ‘No!’ but I’m just proud of the way they just stuck it out.”
Martinez missed the game with a migraine. She was not at McKale Center but is expected back for Monday’s season opener at New Mexico State.
“Sometimes you’re dehydrated when you have a migraine and [are] throwing up, so it was just one of those things,” Barnes said. “We had to get her hydrated, got her an IV, and then just let her rest.”
Pueyo suffered what Barnes described as a sore quad lifting weights. The fifth-year guard did not warm up with her teammates, but she had her uniform on under her sweats in case of emergency. As it turned out, so did Cunningham.
Cunningham made her first collegiate appearance with 38.9 seconds to go in the game and her first basket with just over 16 seconds left. She entered the game when Sali Kourouma’s shoulder popped out of place.
“I was trying to steal the ball, but somehow my shoulder went out,” Kourouma said. “And I was not expecting that. And I just like was holding it, then [athletic trainer] Bart [Jameson] came and put it back on.”
Both Kourouma and Barnes expect her to be back up and running quickly, although Kourouma said she was a little sore after the game.
“I’m going to do rehab tomorrow and stuff,” Kourouma said. “So, should be good.”
The entry of Cunningham drew a technical foul on the Arizona bench because she wasn’t officially active for the night.
“Breya got cleared during the game, so I wasn’t mad,” Barnes said. “Normally, [assistant coach] Bett [Shelby] would have had her in the book, but we didn’t even know it was a possibility to be cleared in the game. We thought earlier today she hadn’t seen the doctor, so I thought maybe after, but she was cleared during the game to be used as an emergency.”
Despite the technical, it thrilled her teammates to see her come into the game. Cunningham’s high school teammate Jada Williams screamed with excitement to see her friend come into the game. Cunningham got two points and a block in her 38.9 seconds of play.
“[Williams] was like, ‘That’s my roommate, my bestie!” Barnes said. “Was super excited. I think excited because Breya was really wanting to play. I mean, for weeks she’s been telling me, ‘I can play.’”
The game was supposed to be played with a running clock because of the situation. On several occasions, the clock operator forgot and stopped where it should have been allowed to run down. It also appeared that the officials let several fouls go that would have been called under different circumstances.
Despite not having its two top players dressed out, Arizona took advantage of its size advantage. The Wildcats were led by Kourouma and Nnaji.
Kourouma made the most of her opportunities before getting injured. The forward had 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting, five rebounds, and six steals. Four of those steals came in the first half.
“She’s been doing this in practice and I’m happy she’s doing it on somebody else, not me,” Nnaji said. “Because she plays so hard in practice. Like, Sali, chill out.”
Nnaji showed some improved footwork around the basket with a couple of step-through scores. She also had several drives to the basket. They helped her to 14 points, which included a 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter that put Arizona up 14-11. She added a game-high six rebounds.
“Her just mental and physical game has improved so much,” Barnes said. “She goes to the basket stronger. She doesn’t shy away from contact. Last year she never posted up. Now she’s driving from the high post. Her spin move’s under control. She’s not throwing it over the basket. She’s finishing. So, she’s gotten better. So, our job is to continue to develop her.”
Sophomore Kailyn Gilbert had difficulty in the first half. She seemed to be pressing and went 1 for 6 from the field while turning the ball over three times. Gilbert settled down in the last 20 minutes, ending the game with eight points on 3-for-10 shooting, three rebounds, three assists, and one steal. She only turned the ball over once after halftime.
Although she went 0 for 4 from the floor, Isis Beh showed how important she can be when fulfilling the role of the glue player who does the things that win games without getting the glory. Beh had just three points, all from the line, but she disrupted the Sea Lions’ offensive flow, grabbed important rebounds, and found her open teammates at the right time.
Beh ended the night with three points, five rebounds, two assists, one block, and one steal.
Arizona’s next game is for real. The Wildcats open the regular season on the road at New Mexico State on Monday, Nov. 6.