The 88-75 loss to No. 5 Texas wasn’t the only blow on Wednesday evening. Sophomore post Maya Nnaji, who is studying to become a doctor in Arizona’s Accelerated Pathway to Medical Education program, is away from the team indefinitely while she focuses on her academics. It left Arizona with just nine players headed into one of the toughest stretches of the season, and it could be permanent.
“She’s not with the team right now,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “Focusing on academics....Possible [that she could return]. Possible. Just not sure yet. She’s in the APME program, which is a track for medical school. So, it’s really challenging and it has a lot of demands and she misses a lot because of basketball. So it’s just difficult. She misses her job shadowing. She misses labs, internships, and then because of that, also misses basketball stuff, too. So that balance is hard...So when she needed a break, I was very supportive and all in on it because that was what she signed up for. I knew she was going to that program when she got here, so I have to support what she’s doing because her dreams and aspirations are to be a doctor.”
The Wildcats didn’t lay down, though. The fifth-ranked Longhorns built an eight-point lead about halfway through the first quarter. Arizona fought back, taking the lead at 20-19. They did it with smooth offense, shooting 57.1 percent from the floor and going 4 for 4 from the 3-point line. The passing was crisp with the Wildcats assisting on five of their eight made shots.
“I thought offensively we were good the first quarter,” Barnes said. “Defensively we weren’t. But we were hanging in there. We were making some good plays. We were battling. And then the second quarter, you can’t then just relax and think you’re just gonna hang around.”
While the Wildcats were shooting over 57 percent, the Longhorns weren’t far behind. They shot 55 percent in the opening quarter and 51.6 percent for the game.
What worked so well offensively in the first seemed to disappear in the second. The Wildcats shot just 21.4 percent. While they assisted on all three of their shots, the glaring issue was that they only hit three of the 14 shots they took.
Ball movement has been a problem for Arizona in several games this year. Barnes said before the game against UC San Diego, the coaching staff showed the players the numbers. They showed them when the team was most efficient and when the Wildcats struggled to hit shots. Then, she implemented rules about ball movement. That seemed to help against the Tritons and the Wildcats kept up with the quality ball movement in the opening quarter against the Longhorns before falling into old habits.
“I thought better ball movement at times,” Barnes said. “I thought pretty good offense for like 25 minutes. I thought at some points we forced shots and it led to transition buckets. So a bad shot’s like a turnover.”
Kailyn Gilbert was one of the players who struggled with old habits. After hitting four of her first six shots, including both of her 3-pointers, she missed her next nine shots. Part of that was taking some inadvisable shots. She said it came down to being too excited.
“It was a close game going into the second quarter,” Gilbert said. “We’re like, ‘Yeah!’ So, we’re just taking a lot of shots we didn’t need to take.”
The Longhorns went into the locker room with a nine-point lead. Then, it was the Shaylee Gonzales quarter. In the third, the Texas guard went 3 for 4 from 3-point distance. Her team shot 60 percent from the field and went 10-13 from the free-throw line to break the game open.
Texas just needed to maintain from there, but Arizona didn’t make it easy. Gilbert found her rhythm again late in the fourth quarter after Texas went up by 26 points. She went 4 for 6 from the field, scoring 11 points in seven minutes of play.
A big part of the run was improved defense. Arizona held Texas to just 12 points and 33.3 percent shooting in the fourth quarter. Both were game lows. They stole the ball four times, leading to transition offense. It was enough to put the game in doubt late in the final period.
“We had moments of really good defensive effort, and then we had times where it was like, ‘What are we doing out there?’ Gilbert said. “Especially towards the end of the game, I feel like we picked it up. So, hopefully, we can just build on that.”
Gilbert ended with 26 points, five rebounds, and two assists in just under 32 minutes of play.
Despite being hampered by fouls—including two in the first 36 seconds of the game—Breya Cunningham had 12 points, five rebounds, and three steals in just under 18 minutes.
Isis Beh had her best game as a Wildcat, scoring nine points on 3-for-5 shooting, grabbing three rebounds, getting two assists, and stealing the ball twice. With Nnaji out, her services will be needed even more.
Helena Pueyo was also more aggressive on offense with eight points on 3-for-6 shooting. She added four assists, which tied Jada Williams for the team high.