Arizona head coach Adia Barnes wants the identity of her program to be defense. When the Wildcats have played lockdown defense in the past, that philosophy has been successful for them even when they weren’t sharp offensively. When the defense deserts them, though, they can be in deep trouble. That was the case in a 72-53 loss to UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday evening.
“We had a hard time guarding them and it wasn’t off of any plays,” Barnes said. “It was off pure guarding the ball, not getting into rotation, and then when you’re in a rotation, you’re vulnerable on box outs. So, I think we had a really tough time guarding the ball and staying disciplined and sticking to the game plan.”
The Wildcats came out without much fire and never really heated up. Even as the clock ticked down at the end of the game, they didn’t make a strong stand on either end of the court.
“Lack of toughness, lack of urgency, lack of fight,” Barnes said. “Absolutely...I don’t know if it’s coming back from a long break or just, I think, surprise getting punched in the mouth first from the get-go. I don’t know, because they were smaller. I think they just really wanted it. They were super motivated. Their team has good chemistry. Has been together a long time. And I think they just got us on our heels and we never knew how to respond.”
With under two minutes to go in the game and a 15-point deficit, the Wildcats didn’t pressure the Rebels. UNLV promptly launched another 3-pointer to push the lead to 18. It encapsulated how the game went for both teams. UA finally started trapping and pressuring the ball after that, but it was far too little far too late.
It wasn’t the first time that the Wildcats appeared to be almost resigned to their fate. They started hitting shots in the third quarter as Kailyn Gilbert began to find her way. The lead was down to 14 on several occasions with well over 10 minutes to go. Despite things starting to turn in their favor, everyone but Gilbert seemed to lack any sense of urgency. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy as the hosts pushed their lead back out.
That pall hung over the court from the first tip. Nothing worked right for the Wildcats in the first half. At 4:40 in the first quarter, Arizona had four points and had given up 11.
“The concern to me is we’re not coming up with those 50-50 balls,” Barnes said. “And that’s a concern because we’re kind of a step late on everything.”
Esmery Martinez did all she could, scoring eight points to help the team reach 13 after the first 10 minutes. The bigger problem was on the other end of the floor where they had already surrendered 22 points to UNLV.
The Rebels hit 52.9 percent of their shots from the field in the opening frame. They also connected on 33.3 percent of their 3-point shots.
Arizona was launching 3-pointers. It just wasn’t hitting them. The ‘Cats went 0-5 from outside in the first quarter and 5 for 14 from the field.
When they were missing, the Wildcats weren’t securing the rebounds. Despite being the bigger team, they were outrebounded 11-6 in the first quarter and 42-29 in the game.
“They were tougher, more athletic, but we’re bigger, stronger,” Barnes said. “And I just think we never really responded.”
Things didn’t get better for Arizona in the second quarter. The Wildcats finally hit a 3-pointer, but they missed the other five they took in the period. Their shooting percentage bottomed out at 15.4 percent overall. Meanwhile, the Rebels were still connecting at a brisk 40-percent clip and outrebounding the visiting team 14-6.
Arizona scored just seven points in the second 10 minutes of the game. It marked the second time in the past two games that the Wildcats have scored in single digits in a quarter. They opened the game against South Dakota with nine points on Nov. 20.
It was enough to send UA into the locker room down by 20. The team shook off the rust in the second half, but UNLV was never threatened. With the huge first-half lead, the Rebels could just coast. They finally shot below 40 percent in the third quarter, but their shooting percentage only dropped to 38.9 percent and they bumped it back up to 42.9 in the final period.
Gilbert and Martinez carried the Arizona offense. They were the only two Wildcats to score in double figures.
Although Gilbert started cold for the second straight game, she got on track in the second half. She went 8 for 17 from the floor and hit all four of her free throws. She ended with 21 points, five rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
Martinez was almost the entire offense early in the game. She had her second double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds. She went 7 for 14 from the floor but 0 for 3 from beyond the arc. She also contributed two assists, two steals, and two blocks.
“She’s one of the toughest kids we have, and that was clearly evident today,” Barnes said.
While they kept the Wildcats somewhat afloat offensively, Gilbert and Martinez had their struggles.
As a team, Arizona cut their turnovers down considerably. The Wildcats came into the game averaging just over 19 turnovers per game. They had 14 against UNLV. Martinez was responsible for seven of those turnovers.
In addition to her slow start, Gilbert had problems with both turnovers (3) and fouls (4). Like turnovers, fouls have been a problem for the team as a whole in the early part of the season and they were once again on Saturday evening. In addition to Gilbert getting whistled four times, Breya Cunningham fouled out for the third time this season.
“I think in some ways there’s some lack of discipline and some positioning and some of that’s like Breya’s young,” Barnes said. “She had some mistakes, but she’s a freshman. I think she was out of position a couple of times. I think a couple calls were tough, but a couple of them they caught her out of position or she reached at the last second. So you know, she’s young and we just have to teach her. We need her in the game...But those are teachable moments.”
While six of the nine players who got on the court scored, Arizona got no scoring from Cunningham, Helena Pueyo, or Courtney Blakely. The Wildcats got just two points from Sali Kourouma, both of which came at the free-throw line. Kourouma went 0 for 6 from the field.
Blakely played three minutes as she once again had difficulty with shot selection, forcing her only shot while surrounded by UNLV defenders.
“I should have probably given her a second chance in the second half, but she just made some mistakes fast and it cost a big swing in points,” Barnes said. “But she’s just learning our system. So she’ll be fine. She’s a player that we need.”
Pueyo took just one shot in the first half as the Rebels were building their lead. She ended 0 for 4 from the field but contributed three rebounds, two assists, and a block.
Freshman guard Skylar Jones is in concussion protocol. She did not play, but she should be ready when Arizona hosts UC San Diego on Thursday, Dec. 7. The Wildcats need all hands on deck six days after that when they host No. 10 Texas.