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Turning defense to offense saves Arizona women’s basketball

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 12 Women’s - Loyola Marymount at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Youthful mistakes have been a feature of the early season for Arizona women’s basketball. They were again on Tuesday evening, but just as they did in the previous three games, the Wildcats walked away with a victory.

Arizona defeated the University of San Diego by the score of 79-66. For much of the game, that result was in no way assured.

“Regardless of how pretty or ugly it is, a win’s a win,” said Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. There’s a lot of upsets around the country so I’m just happy we were able to win. The third game in five days with the short roster is pretty difficult.”

The Wildcats were led by sophomore Kailyn Gilbert. She finished the game with 21 points on 6 for 16 shooting from the field and 8 for 8 shooting from the line. She added four rebounds, three assists, and two steals.

The Wildcats also got double-digit scoring from Esmery Martinez (12 points), Maya Nnaji (12), and Sali Kourouma (14).

Helena Pueyo was just 1 for 2 from the field, but she had another strong defensive outing with six steals. Pueyo added team highs with nine rebounds and six assists.

The whistles were blowing all night against both teams. Arizona wasn’t shooting well. With 5:05 left in the third quarter, the Toreros took a one-point lead. Ninety seconds later, Arizona led by 12.

The stretch of play started right out of the locker room after the half. Arizona took a nine-point lead on a layup by Nnaji, but the team stalled there. The Wildcats went over five minutes between baskets. Their only four points during that period came on free throws from Breya Cunningham.

As the home team struggled to hit shots, USD went 5 for 10 from the field. The five buckets included two 3-pointers. Arizona looked like it was in trouble.

Barnes preaches defense, and defense turned the tide back in the Wildcats’ favor. Cunningham ended the scoring drought with two free throws to put Arizona back up by one point, but the dry spell from the floor stretched for another 30 seconds. That ended when Gilbert grabbed a defensive rebound and took it to the basket with 4:09 left in the period, giving her team its first field goal since the 9:32 mark.

Next came a steal by Pueyo. It turned into an assist with Nanji getting the and-1 call. Arizona was up by six.

Then it was freshman Jada Williams’ turn. She went for the steal on the bad pass by San Diego’s Veronica Sheffey. Sheffey compounded her error by fouling Williams.

Another bad pass by San Diego turned into a steal for Gilbert. Gilbert managed to control the ball as she came down, then pushed forward for the layup.

The next play was another Torero turnover, this one a Kourouma steal. It was Sheffey again, and she made the ill-advised foul after the steal for the second time in a row. Kourouma’s two free throws put the Wildcats up by 12 just 90 seconds after they fell behind.

They had a chance to push it even further. Pueyo forced a fifth straight USD turnover. This time, she tried to force the pass and gave it right back to the Toreros, but Arizona was in a much more comfortable position.

“Coach made an adjustment on the defensive end and we went on the run for like six, eight points,” Gilbert said. “So from there, we just had a lot of energy. But it started with defense.”

The whistle was the best friend of both teams. Early whistles against Arizona had starters like Pueyo on the bench with two fouls for large chunks of the first half. Five of the Wildcats’ nine available players had two fouls by halftime and Pueyo played just 12 of the opening 20 minutes.

“It’s hard to work without Helena,” Barnes said. “She’s so valuable and what she does and what she brings does not ever show up on the stat sheet.”

San Diego’s fouls throughout the game had the Wildcats parading to the line. The Toreros almost matched the Wildcats, shooting 42.1 percent from the field compared to Arizona’s 42.4 percent. The difference was Arizona going 27 for 33 from the free throw line while USD hit just 14 of the 21 they took.

Each team had a player foul out with less than two minutes to go. They both ended the game with another player sporting four fouls. Arizona had three more with three fouls each while USD ended with two more carrying three fouls.

The Wildcats also struggled with turnovers. Offensive fouls accounted for some of them, but it was lack of fundamentals that accounted for most. The team ended the night with 24 giveaways. They were fortunate that their opponent gave up 29.

“I just feel like we’re being careless with the ball,” Gilbert said. “It wasn’t necessarily the pressure. It was just us like overthrowing passes, maybe dribbling too much.”

Barnes is reminding herself of what she’s building.

“We found a way and we found a way despite the turnovers and just lack of some fundamentals,” she said. “But I have to remember when I get really critical, we’re a really young team with seven new players. So sometimes I played three freshmen at a time. So there are going to be mistakes and I just have to remember that it’s for the future.”

The Wildcats next take on Memphis to tip off the Battle4Atlantis. They were due to leave Tucson in the early hours of Wednesday morning to fly to the Bahamas.