With its short bench, one thing that could stand in Arizona’s way this season is foul trouble. The Wildcats got a taste of what that might mean in a 70-54 win over Loyola Marymount in McKale Center on Sunday afternoon.
When all was said and done, three of the Wildcats’ nine available players had four fouls and freshman Breya Cunningham fouled out. Cunningham exited the game with 2:54 left to go. Freshman guard Skylar Jones picked up three whistles in her 22 minutes of play, as well.
Once again, offensive fouls were the bane of Arizona’s existence. The Wildcats had four offensive fouls. Two of those went against sophomore forward Maya Nnaji, giving her a team-high five turnovers as well as putting her in foul trouble.
The whistles were especially fast and furious during the second half.
“I think that there was just a point where they were cleaning up the game and just calling a lot both ways,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “So I think it was fairly called, and they were charges. We just saw a lot of them in clusters. I don’t think I’ve seen a game where there’s been like six or seven.”
Veterans Helena Pueyo and Kailyn Gilbert helped settle things down. The pair joined Sali Kourouma in double figures. Gilbert narrowly missed a double-double with nine rebounds to go with her 15 points. Pueyo was close to an even more improbable double-double with 12 points and seven steals.
Gilbert has been a problem for opposing teams in the early going. Through three games, the sophomore guard averages 15.7 points to lead the team. She is 6 for 12 from the 3-point line and averages 1.7 steals per game. Even more surprising, she leads the Wildcats with 9.3 rebounds per game.
“I feel like it kind of sets the pace offensively for us,” Gilbert said. “I feel like if I can get in transition, I’m one of the fastest players on the court. So just by me pushing it up the court and the post rim-running we can get easy points like that.”
Pueyo was disruptive on defense, but she was also key on the offensive end. Her shot was off in the first two games. She went 1 for 8 at New Mexico State and 1 for 5 in the home opener against NAU. Against LMU, she hit 4 of 7 shots.
Just as importantly, Pueyo is still setting up her teammates. She had four assists without turning the ball over to improve her season assist-to-turnover ratio to 3.7 assists per turnover. She has turned the ball over just three times in three games with all three turnovers coming in the first outing of the season.
Pueyo’s unselfishness was on full display during the second quarter. She got a steal and raced down the court. Right next to her was Jones. Pueyo handed Jones the ball and let her lay it in for the score.
“She’s one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever coached,” Barnes said. “I’ve been a part of it with USA Basketball, anywhere I’ve coached. She’s like the perfect teammate. She does everything right. She’s great in the locker room. She’s coachable. I’ve never had issues. Ever. With anything. She’s great in the classroom. So she is the person you want to clone. Great person, great family.”
Pueyo, Gilbert, and fifth-year forward Esmery Martinez all seem entrenched in the starting lineup at this point. Barnes is still trying to decide who will fill the other two spots, though. Against NAU, she went with a big lineup of Pueyo, Gilbert, Martinez, Nnaji, and Cunningham. Two days later, LMU faced a starting five of Pueyo, Gilbert, Martinez, Isis Beh, and Jada Williams.
“It’s just our starts have been really bad,” Barnes said. “We changed and they were bad again. Just not wanting to give up 14, 16 points in five minutes. Like that’s not who we are , we’re usually holding people at home under 50 points consistently. And we don’t really have a sense of urgency and I don’t know what the solution is because we didn’t have that today either. So it’s just finding that lineup that gives us that spark and that punch-first mentality.”
Arizona will wind up its homestand when San Diego comes to town on Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m. MST. After that, the Wildcats head to the Bahamas for the Battle4Atlantis. They will play three games in three days when they get there.
Barnes hopes to have guard Courtney Blakely available by then. Blakely is waiting to be reinstated by the NCAA after being ruled ineligible for a situation that came as a surprise to both the player and Barnes.
“A lot is a surprise to me the last few years, I guess,” Barnes said. “I’m always getting surprises. Yeah, it was an interesting situation. So, she transferred here. Didn’t know anything about that. Then found out something about that because it involved me, too. And she sat out and there were repercussions on both ends, which is kind of amazing for me and very surprising...It’s at the mercy of when her file’s read and when she’s reinstated, but it was something out of our control and really not a fair situation for a student-athlete or myself...So we’re waiting. So as soon as her case is looked at, then she’ll probably be reinstated.”