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Arizona women’s basketball bounces back from difficult week with dominant win over ASU

Arizona guard Kailyn Gilbert (15) shoots while surrounded by four members of the Sun Devils at Desert Financial Arena on Dec. 17, 2023
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

TEMPE—The last several days have been emotional for members of the Arizona women’s basketball program after losing yet another player. Perhaps it was a good time for a rivalry game, all things considered. If the Wildcats were feeling drained by the low numbers and uncertainties, it didn’t show in their 91-52 defeat of in-state foe Arizona State on Sunday evening.

“[It was] very important after a loss and after the departure of Maya [Nnaji] to focus on school,” said Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. “So, she’s a starter with 10 points game. So we’re losing someone with double digits. Everybody has stepped up. I think our chemistry got even better. I think...we miss Maya tremendously. She’s a great player for us. But I think when you face adversity, it brings the team together more. So, I think just the fact that anybody departing, you kind of know everybody has to step up because we have less numbers. So I think it made us more cohesive the last couple games. And better.”

It was all about team basketball. The Wildcats played strong defense and, just as importantly, they played team offense. Passing the ball. Finding the open player. Hitting those open shots. What was the difference?

“I think we got a lot of confidence from seeing we can play with really good teams,” Barnes said. “I thought we had a good second half against Texas...We showed them a lot of film and really reiterating that we are only successful if we get certain people involved and if we’re playing selfless.”

Arizona had shown flashes of this capability. As Barnes mentioned, they had some periods of team basketball against No. 5 Texas last Wednesday. In the first quarter against Texas, the Wildcats moved the ball nicely and made it a game. When they stopped passing the ball, the Longhorns ran away from them in the second and third quarters. Even after that, they used defense in the fourth quarter to reel UT back in and make the score respectable.

This time, they didn’t stop passing the ball. This time, they were the ones running away from the opposition in a way they haven’t done all season, even against some “lesser” opponents. At the half, they were shooting 72.4 percent overall and an eye-popping 81.8 percent from the 3-point land. They had 14 assists and just six turnovers. Sophomore guard Kailyn Gilbert had three of those assists just in the first half.

“In the past, we wouldn’t make those passes,” Barnes said. “We would dribble. So, I thought we did a really good job of everybody trying to look for the next person and that’s a sign of growth because we weren’t doing that before. We would dribble and not look up. I thought Kailyn is the one who is the catalyst on that. She’s the one that gets us going by her doing that.”

When ASU tried to press them, they either passed it from guard to guard down the court or Gilbert turned on the jets and weaved through that press. Easy layups or transition 3s were the result.

As a team, the Wildcats ended with 24 assists on 34 made baskets. They ended the game shooting 56.7 percent overall and 65 percent from 3. Their 13 made 3-point shots were the second most in program history.

They also showed what kind of defense they can play. Gilbert has said several times that she came to Arizona hating defense, and she didn’t want to play it last year. Even as a sophomore, she sometimes spends time celebrating after made baskets and not getting back on defense. She showed none of that against the Sun Devils. She hustled back on defense, she found her open teammates, and she still got her own.

Gilbert ended the day with 19 points, four assists, six rebounds, and one steal. The points and assists were team highs.

Fellow sophomore guard Courtney Blakely showed why Barnes loves her defense. Blakely was a pest. She hassled the ASU ballhandlers. Even if they got past her, they had to worry about her continuing the play and knocking it out of their hands from behind. She showed that defense isn’t just about blocks or steals.

As a team, the Wildcats held the Sun Devils to a season-low 30.6 percent shooting. The 52 points scored were the second-lowest of the season for ASU, trailing only the 42 they put up when they played Texas earlier in the season.

Five players ended up in double figures. Helena Pueyo showed offensive aggression and her teammates found her for open shots. The fifth-year senior had 18 points, two rebounds, three assists, and two steals. She hit a career-high five 3-point shots as her teammates found her and she pulled the trigger again and again.

Fellow fifth-year senior Esmery Martinez joined Pueyo and Gilbert in double figures, as did freshmen Skylar Jones and Breya Cunningham. Martinez had 10 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one block, and two steals in 22 minutes.

“For us to be good, Esmery and [Pueyo] have to play like that,” Barnes said. “If [Pueyo is] taking two, three, four shots, we’re not gonna win games.”

Cunningham’s damage was done despite being saddled with fouls all night. She ended with four fouls and only played 16 minutes as a result. She still had 11 points, eight rebounds, an assist, and five blocks.

Jones showed the promise that Barnes has always seen in her on both ends of the floor. Barnes likened her to a more athletic and better-shooting version of former Arizona standout Sam Thomas. Jones went 4 for 6 from the field for 10 points. She added one rebound and two assists.

The total team concept will be what propels Arizona forward if the Wildcats are going to be successful in Pac-12 play.

Barnes said that the team Face Timed Nnaji before the game. When it was time to hit the court, there was no looking back. They came together as a group of nine and all made contributions.

With Cunningham dealing with fouls, Isis Beh scored six points, grabbed seven rebounds, and dished out three assists. Sali Kourouma had eight points, five rebounds, and three assists.

Now, it’s on to face Gonzaga on Wednesday. Barnes said win or lose that game, she feels the team will be prepared for Pac-12 play. They’re already undefeated.