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Third quarter dooms Arizona women’s basketball again in loss to No. 20 Gonzaga

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 20 Women’s - Jerry Colangelo’s 2023 Hall of Fame Series - Gonzaga vs Arizona Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

PHOENIX—How do you stop Yvonne Ejim? That was the early question for Arizona women’s basketball on Wednesday afternoon in a 81-69 loss at the Jerry Colangelo Hall of Fame Series at Footprint Center.

The Wildcats couldn’t answer that question in the first half against Gonzaga. They allowed Ejim to go 10 for 12 from the field. She had 21 points—two over her per-game average—after the first 20 minutes. She ended the game with 27 points, seven rebounds, and four blocks. Her 13 made field goals gave her 124 for the season, tying Iowa’s Caitlin Clark for the most in Division I.

“I was really worried about that matchup coming into the game,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “And rightfully so. She destroyed us.”

Ejim was too mobile for Arizona’s bigs to guard and too big for the guards to handle, although Helena Pueyo seemed to do the strongest job on her of all the Wildcats.

“Really, really hard...player to guard, especially when I was playing the four,” Pueyo said. “Skylar [Jones] was also playing the four. It’s really hard for we really needed Esmery [Martinez] to play the four.”

Martinez did not have her strongest game. She went 0 for 7 from the floor, scoring one point and grabbing two rebounds. She played just 24 minutes as a result.

The positive for the Wildcats was that Ejim was doing almost all of the scoring for the Bulldogs in the first half. They were able to stay close as a result, but that didn’t last.

In the second half, Brynna Maxwell got hot. Maxwell scored 14 of her 17 points in the third quarter.

It wasn’t just Maxwell, either. The entire Bulldogs team came out of the locker room looking ready while Arizona fell into its common trap of being sluggish after the break. The Wildcats were outscored 29-14 in the third quarter.

“I think just wanting to come out with a lot of energy and you want to match Arizona’s intensity, kind of slow down and handle the pressure,” Maxwell said about Gonzaga’s play in the third quarter. “And we were just trying to run our stuff and see what’s open. And then people are hitting their shots, and it’s super fun when the team’s gelling like that.”

Barnes recognized what was going on when the Wildcats gave up four straight points to the Bulldogs to start the third, pushing their lead to 10. She called a quick timeout just 90 seconds into the second half. It didn’t stop the bleeding.

Ten seconds into the fourth quarter, Gonzaga had a 24-point lead. As they did against No. 5 Texas a week ago, Arizona finally kicked into gear on the defensive end and started making some shots. The Wildcats outscored the Bulldogs 23-14 in the final period, but the hole they dug for themselves in the third quarter was too deep.

The Wildcats shot 45 percent from the field. They turned Gonzaga over 20 times while only turning the ball over 12 times on their end. They got 29 points off the bench compared to 11 for the Bulldogs.

Arizona was led by Kailyn Gilbert with 21 points, five rebounds, one assist, and four steals. She added five turnovers, two of which came in the form of offensive fouls.

Pueyo had 12 points, seven rebounds, and two assists. Jada Williams led the team with four assists.

Sali Kourouma came up big, especially in the fourth quarter. She had 17 points in 19 minutes of play. Ten of her points came in the final 10 minutes. She added one rebound and two steals.

The offense wasn’t the issue, though.

The issue in Barnes’ eyes was allowing Gonzaga to shoot 63 percent from the field and 47 percent from beyond the arc. The issue was getting outrebounded by a smaller Gonzaga team 32-21 and outscored in the paint 40-36. The Bulldogs’ superiority on the boards led to an 11-5 advantage in second-chance points.

“You can tell they’re fluid on offense and have continuity on offense,” Barnes said. “And the ball just went around the perimeter and they did whatever they wanted. And when we made mistakes, when we couldn’t play good on-ball defense, they made us pay. And we gave up more layups this game than I can remember.”

The Wildcats now take a break for the holiday before coming back to face Seattle on New Year’s Eve in McKale Center. After that, it’s on to Pac-12 play in earnest. Barnes knows they need to improve before they get to that point.

“We’re not going to win games if we can’t guard people,” Barnes said. “We just have to find a way to get better defensively or else it’s going to be a long Pac-12 season.”