Arizona has six new players this year. Four of them took the floor in a Wildcat uniform for the first time on opening night. Add to that the fact that UA opened on the road and under the circumstances, it was no surprise that the team was inconsistent on both ends of the floor in its season-opening 68-57 win at New Mexico State.
The story was freshman Breya Cunningham. The post sat out both Arizona exhibitions with a knee injury. She missed approximately a month of practice on top of it. No one would have guessed.
Cunningham dominated the smaller Aggies, putting together a double-double in her first game. She went 6 for 7 from the floor for 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Cunningham also had one assist, but the offense wasn’t what impressed Barnes the most.
“I think where she really impacted us was defensively,” Barnes said. “Five blocks.”
The size mismatch was an issue the Aggies couldn’t overcome. That was obvious early on when they could not stop Maya Nnaji.
Gilbert and Sali Kourouma put Arizona ahead in the first quarter, but Nnaji was instrumental in the second period when NMSU started to settle down and the Wildcats’ fouls began to affect the game. The sophomore post had nine of her 15 points in the second quarter. In addition to shooting 4 for 5, Nnaji had two rebounds, two assists, and a steal to help Arizona maintain its lead in the 10 minutes before the half. It’s something she would not have been able to do last season.
“It’s work and confidence from her work,” Barnes said. “Her body’s way better. She’s in better shape. She would have never been able to play almost 30 minutes last year, so she’s more fit, confident. The best thing about sophomores is they’re not freshmen anymore.”
Esmery Martinez, who missed Arizona’s final exhibition with a migraine, fell back into her habit of getting into early foul trouble. Martinez had two fouls less than 2:30 into the game. She left the game and did not return until the second half. Martinez played into the fourth quarter without getting another violation, but picked up two more and had to go to the bench with 5:32 left in the game. That’s a problem that Arizona will have difficulty overcoming against Pac-12 competition.
The fouls by Martinez were just one example of players falling into old habits. Sophomore guard Kailyn Gilbert contributed a lot of positives. She narrowly missed a double-double with 16 points and nine rebounds, but as the game progressed, she began to press and overdribble. The ball movement stopped and the turnovers began to pile up.
The whistles came fast in the early going. The Aggies were in the bonus less than halfway through the first quarter. Three of Arizona’s first-period fouls came on the offensive end of the court and the Wildcats ended the game with five offensive fouls. They constituted five of UA’s 26 turnovers.
The Wildcats’ offensive fouls weren’t great, but they weren’t Barnes’ biggest concern when assessing the turnover issues. She was more concerned about two of her starting guards.
“Kailyn and Jada [Williams] combined for 11,” Barnes said.
Helena Pueyo had three and Skylar Jones added four more off the bench, giving Arizona’s guards 18 of the 26 turnovers. Jones and Williams were playing in their first regular season game, but having Pueyo and Gilbert add nine turnovers to the tally is a bigger concern.
Jones’ positive contributions didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but Barnes was pleased that she didn’t let her problems on the offensive end affect her defense.
“She had some great defensive plays,” Barnes said. “Made some mistakes, but they were freshman mistakes. I thought she had a really good first game.”
It wasn’t meant to be a cakewalk. Barnes said last week that Arizona would be tested and it was entirely possible that the Wildcats could go back to Tucson with a loss.
NMSU is in the second year of head coach Jody Adams’ tenure. Last season, she led the program to its first winning season in four years and a victory in the opening round of the WBI. It was the program’s first postseason victory in 30 years.
It was a good test for the inexperienced Wildcats. They were able to pull through with a victory and get an idea of what needs to happen next.
“We’re not where we need to be, but we’re getting better,” Barnes said. “And we’re getting people back, but we have to work really fast.”
Arizona’s home opener is on Friday, Nov. 10 when Northern Arizona comes to Tucson. The Wildcats will play three games in five days at McKale Center before heading to the Battle4Atlantis in the Bahamas.