Arizona was a very guard-oriented team last season. It’s a new year and the Wildcats are going big. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes leaned on her frontcourt in an 87-64 home-opening win over Northern Arizona.
Barnes started three guards in both of the exhibitions and Monday’s road win at New Mexico State. Part of that was simply because of who she had available. Injuries and NCAA issues left her with as few as five players, but those players are starting to get back onto the court.
Against the Lumberjacks, Barnes went with a starting lineup of center Breya Cunningham and power forward Maya Nnaji in the frontcourt. Esmery Martinez went to the three. In the backcourt, the Wildcats went with Helena Pueyo and Kailyn Gilbert.
“I think that we have a really good core posts unit,” Barnes said. “So if you look at the five we have Isis [Beh] and Breya. At the four, right now we have Maya. We also have Sali [Kourouma], and then we have Esmery to go in the four and the three. So, that’s one of the reasons why I started out a little bit bigger this game.”
Going bigger to start also allows Barnes to have subs for Pueyo and Gilbert. With the guard unit being a bit smaller, starting Jada Williams, Pueyo, and Gilbert means only Skylar Jones is on the bench as a substitute. Jones was out with an injury in the preseason, so she’s still getting up to speed.
Nnaji was dominant in the early going. She scored eight points before going down with what looked like an injury just under seven minutes before halftime. Nnaji stayed down for several minutes while the training staff tended to her before walking off the court under her own power. She returned to the game briefly in the second quarter and scored two more points but was on the court for less than five minutes in the second half. Barnes said after the game that she was sick.
The sophomore wasn’t the only big the Lumberjacks couldn’t contend with. Freshman Cunningham had a game-high 18 points on 9-for-10 shooting. She added three rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block. Cunningham has only missed two shots in her young career.
Martinez was also extremely efficient, hitting seven of her nine shots and going 2-for-2 at the line. She finished with 16 points and six rebounds to go with an assist and two steals in just 22 minutes of play.
Even the reserve frontcourt players got into the act. Sali Kourouma had 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting. She added four rebounds, two assists, and three steals.
Just because the frontcourt was dominant didn’t mean the backcourt was absent. Kailyn Gilbert didn’t have a lot in the way of stats after the first half. At the end of the opening 20 minutes, the sophomore had just two points and one assist. She played just six minutes after picking up two fouls.
“I just said like, whatever happened in the first half happened,” Gilbert said. “I’ll just have to put that behind me and just look at the next play...let’s try to do something.”
She did something. Gilbert was 1 for 3 going into the half. She hit 4 of her 7 shots in the final 20 minutes. All 10 of her rebounds came in the second half. She didn’t pick up any fouls.
“I thought that she played with a lot of maturity and poise, and that’s a sophomore thing,” Barnes said. “As a freshman, you’re not able to put that behind you. As a freshman, you’re gonna be frustrated, and you see freshman Skylar going through that now. But those are just the progression and the journey of getting better and getting more experienced.”
One freshman who is playing with a lot of poise is Cunningham. Despite being out for a while, she dominates in the paint, but she still has things to accomplish on her journey.
“I just have to work and get better individually, like getting in shape and stuff since I missed a couple of weeks,” Cunningham said.
There are also things she’s learning to do on the defensive end. In the Arizona system, the post often steps out onto the perimeter to help trap. Cunningham is learning to do that, even forcing an over-and-back while guarding a much smaller player, but she knows there’s a ways to go.
“For me, just being a big and guarding people that tend to be a little faster and smaller than me, I have to really focus on trying to move my feet and staying low which is something I still have to work on,” Cunningham said. “But just I try to focus on keeping the ball in front of me as much as possible when I’m going out on the wing just because I’m not very comfortable out there.”