Limiting turnovers, attacking the zone, and getting bench points from the freshmen was Arizona’s recipe for success against South Dakota in the third-place game at the Battle4Atlantis in Nassau, Bahamas Monday afternoon. The Wildcats used strong games by freshmen Jada Williams and Skylar Jones to defeat the Coyotes 61-52 and finish 2-1 in the pre-Thanksgiving tournament.
“I’m proud of the way our team responded today,” said Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. “Yesterday was a tough loss. We played a lot of games...this is the sixth game in 11 days. So I didn’t know what to expect from this team today. We’re really young. You know, eight new players, a lot of freshmen are playing, and just a short bench. So, I’m proud that we lost yesterday, we came back stronger, and came back with some specific things to work on. And we did that today.”
The biggest difference for Arizona was the way it attacked the zone. After being ineffective against the Ole Miss zone defense in the semifinals, they studied film and talked about how to run offense against it in the future. Most importantly, they got the ball into the paint instead of just passing around the perimeter and launching 3-point shots.
“That’s always something we focus on,” Barnes said. “And we talked about it, but we just had a really tough time executing it yesterday. Because, obviously, people are playing a zone to congest the paint and to make you shoot outside, so we didn’t want to settle for 30 threes. So, yesterday, I think we had a really hard time executing zone offense. The ball never went inside or didn’t go inside out or get reversed. And I think today just reviewing it for 30 minutes this morning, seeing it on film and explaining the advantages we want in the zone, the reason why we do what we’re doing, I think they had a really good understanding of it today.”
The Wildcats again dealt with foul trouble. Three players, including starters Kailyn Gilbert and Breya Cunningham, ended the game with four fouls each. It made Barnes lean on her reserves, who accounted for 25 points. Williams and Jones were responsible for 21 of those points. Both freshmen did it after playing very little in Arizona’s loss to Ole Miss on Sunday.
“I think Jada responded really well yesterday,” Barnes said. “The unfortunate thing that wasn’t my plan is she only played six minutes, and I told her and the team after, I should have played you more because there’s so many things she does that really help us. And so I think she responded well. She could have hung her head. She could have been mad. She wasn’t. She’s always the same. She’s always consistent...Regardless of what happens to her situation, she’s never thinking about herself...And also Skylar. Skylar didn’t play one minute in the game yesterday, and she came in, she still fought. She had her best offensive performance, but defensively she was a lot better. A lot more disciplined on defense.”
Williams had struggled with her shot to start her freshman season, but she broke out with 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting against the Coyotes. The other parts of her game have been solid this year, and that continued. She added 1 rebound, 3 assists, and one steal while only committing one foul and one turnover in a team-high 33 minutes.
“I think what we’ve talked about a lot as freshmen in general is we play basketball our whole lives, so just stay confident,” Williams said. “We played a lot against a lot of good people. So really, just if my shot’s not falling, where can I help my team in other ways, which is defense, talking, energy, stuff like that. So really just working on my shot, not thinking about it too much because that’s where I start to miss more thinking about it. But honestly, my teammates were looking for me today.”
Barnes has mentioned how hard Jones has been on herself, often mentioning the freshman’s body language when she makes a mistake. That wasn’t an issue on Monday. Jones hit her first three shots, going 3 for 4 over the course of the game. She went 2 for 3 from long distance for a total of eight points. She added two rebounds, an assist, and a steal in 14 minutes.
The increase in minutes for both freshman guards could be attributed at least partially to foul trouble for sophomore Kailyn Gilbert. Gilbert had to spend long stretches on the bench. She ended with four fouls in 13 minutes on the court.
Arizona went into the half with a seven-point lead, but South Dakota came back strong in the third quarter to tie it at 39 at the end of the 30 minutes. A lot of that was a result of free throws. After a total of 11 fouls in the first half, the Wildcats had eight whistles against them in just the third quarter. They resulted in the Coyotes going 7 for 10 from the line in the period.
“Well, getting to the free throw line 10 times in a quarter, I think we were in attack mode for sure,” said South Dakota head coach Kayla Karius said. “And I think Walker Demers had a really good game, and that was a quarter where she really stepped up. She just had the look in her eye and things got really physical inside, and she kept her cool pretty well and drew a couple of offensive fouls on their bigs.”
Keeping composure was a theme for Arizona, too. Barnes felt that her team kept its cool despite some calls she didn’t agree with. In the fourth, the number of whistles on Arizona dropped to just three and South Dakota didn’t shoot any free throws.
In addition to the fouls easing up, Arizona took advantage of much better shooting. The Wildcats scored 22 of their 61 points in the final period. They went 8 for 17 from the field and hit 5 of 8 free throws while outscoring the Coyotes by nine.
The Wildcats were led in scoring by Esmery Martinez with 14 points. She narrowly missed a double-double with eight rebounds and added two assists, a block, and four steals. The steals trailed only Helena Pueyo, who had five to go with her eight points, four rebounds, three assists, and one block. Pueyo tied Williams for the team high in assists.
Arizona does not play again until traveling to Las Vegas to play UNLV on Saturday, Dec. 2.