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Arizona women’s basketball notebook: On Sali Kourouma’s off-court challenges, Maya Nnaji’s future, scheduling, and more

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

Arizona women’s basketball is headed back to the court for its final nonconference game. Seattle University comes to town on New Year’s Eve before the Wildcats start facing the gauntlet of the Pac-12. This year, UA may be more prepared due to a stronger schedule than it typically plays, but there are a lot of outside challenges and distractions on everyone’s plate.

Sali Kourouma tries to help her family

Arizona wing Sali Kourouma has had challenges since she first came to the U.S. from Mali in the fall of 2017. As the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette explained in a 2022 article, Kourouma and five teammates landed in Phoenix thinking they would be attending high school and playing basketball. The school part of it turned out not to be stable. So, in 2018, she moved by herself to Wichita, Kan. to finish high school. A torn ACL her senior year forced her to put off college basketball for a year, but she eventually made her mark at juco Grayson College. That got her a place at Arkansas-Little Rock where she was the Ohio Valley Player of the Year.

Things weren’t going well back in Mali, though. Her parents’ home was destroyed in a storm in 2019. When she finally got to return to Mali in 2022, she was there to renew her visa and deliver money she had raised through a GoFundMe while at Arkansas-Little Rock. It ended up being an eight-month ordeal with Kourouma unable to return to school and basketball until halfway through the 2022-23 season.

“I know, as a coach, there’s times when she sends her money home,” Barnes said. “I know that. I’m very aware of that, and I can tell when that’s going on. But I understand why, and so I don’t fault that. So, I want to help. And, definitely, tweet it out. And it has momentum and people are helping because I think at the end of the day people want to help in those situations and people care. And a lot of people haven’t been in those situations. And it’s just a different world where she’s from. It’s not even like the States, because I’ve also traveled through Africa and it’s just a different type of poverty and just struggle...I’ve seen videos, pictures. We’ve talked extensively about it. I’ve seen her sad sometimes about it because there’s pressure and there’s not a lot [Kourouma] can do. [She] can’t just go give 150 or $100,000. They’re college kids. So, I think it’s hard and it does put stress and pressure for sure.”

Kourouma’s family home is still in need of restoration. She has started another GoFundMe drive to try to help them rebuild. With the larger audience available to her at Arizona, perhaps she can fulfill her family’s dream this time. She has reached $13,450 of her $50,000 goal as of Dec. 29. The largest single donation—a gift of $2,000—came from teammate Maya Nnaji.

On Maya Nnaji’s future

Nnaji isn’t just donating to Arizona teammates these days. According to a pair of social media posts she made just before Christmas, she is also still training and lifting weights in hopes of eventually returning to basketball.

Fan question: “Could you come back to basketball in the future?” Nnaji answer: “of course ! i’m no where near done hooping [emoji of female basketball player]”
First screenshot of Maya Nnaji responding to a fan’s question on Instagram on Dec. 22, 2023.
fan question: “why you quitting bball”; nnaji answer: “I’m still hooping with my trainer and lifting weights.”
Second screenshot of Maya Nnaji responding to a fan’s question on Instagram on Dec. 22, 2023.

That intention initially came as a surprise to Barnes. Despite being in regular contact with Nnaji, she was unaware that the forward still wanted to play. However, Barnes understood how Nnaji might miss playing more than she anticipated.

“She loves basketball,” Barnes said. “She’s a really good basketball player. I think that just the situation now and the pressure of school was very overwhelming, and there’s certain criteria you have to maintain to stay in the program. So, I think that was a lot of pressure and you’re missing a lot when you’re playing basketball, and it’s hard.”

Barnes said she would pursue the issue with Nnaji, but it’s unlikely to be until after the season. She also did not sound certain that Arizona would be the place for the forward even if she does return to the game. That would have to be something for both parties to consider.

“I think that it would be something that she would probably explore at the end of the year,” Barnes said. “And I think that’s something that I would definitely talk to her about.”

Nnaji is currently still listed on the Arizona roster.

On the Wildcats’ schedule

Barnes has always argued that she doesn’t schedule a tough slate of teams in nonconference because the Wildcats have to face so many top teams in the Pac-12. This year, she did things differently, even if it wasn’t necessarily her intention.

As of the end of competition on Dec. 27, Arizona had a nonconference strength of schedule that was ranked first in the Pac-12 according to traditional RPI and third according to the NET. Overall, it was ranked No. 24 based on RPI and No. 41 based on the NET. That’s out of 360 Division I teams.

Is it better to get wins and confidence against a weaker schedule or to prepare for the type of teams you will see in the Pac-12 by playing a tougher schedule? Does that change for a team with less Pac-12 experience overall?

“With our limited numbers, our personnel, we can’t overlook anybody at any time,” Barnes said. “It’s such a different situation than from a couple years ago when you’re going in the game pretty confident. We don’t overlook anybody ever, but you go in kind of more confident trying to maybe plan to play some younger players. Right now, that’s our reality. So it’s not a plan. It is what it is. And it’s hard because you never know with young players. They’re not consistent yet, and you don’t know what’s going to show up.”

While the young players may not be consistent yet and they didn’t get the opportunity to build a lot of confidence by playing almost exclusively against overmatched teams, the tougher schedule may have been a blessing in disguise even with the losses.

As Barnes said after the loss to Gonzaga, most teams in the Pac-12 are at least as good as the Bulldogs. A few are as good as or better than Texas. Not just the freshmen but also the players who are new to the Pac-12 go into league play knowing what it means to face those kinds of teams. Most importantly, they are learning that sustained intensity is required. Fifth-year guard Helena Pueyo said after the Gonzaga loss that she was trying to bring sustained energy, but that everyone else needed to step up in that department, too.

“It’s about to get really real,” Barnes said. “It’s been pretty real for half the nonconference. One part of me looks back and it’s like, ‘Wow, all these other teams haven’t played anybody in the nonconference.’ I don’t know. That’s kind of good, too, because when you think about resting people when you have short least when you have a lot of guarantee games, you can rest people. So, there’s pros and cons. But then are you prepared to play Colorado and Utah the first weekend? No, but maybe you are because you’re confident.”

On injuries

Arizona has two players who have not seen playing time this season, Montaya Dew and former walk-on Erin Tuck. Dew has progressed well with her rehab. She might technically be able to play in a month or two, but Barnes has no intention of doing so despite the low number of available players.

“I could play Montaya the last month of this season, but for me, it’s like she has such a bright future,” Barnes said. “I mean, she would have played a lot for us. She could have had a starting position, who knows? So for me to waste and maybe have her play one month... that’s not worth it for me. Now, if she really wanted it, it would be something we talked about, but I don’t think it’d be smart because I have her for four more years. She’s improved her shot, she’s getting strong. The only thing that would be holding [the medical staff] back from playing right now is the strength in her quad which takes probably like a month, a month and a half but I think it’d be too rushed...I just don’t think she’s ready to play for us and impact us.”

As for Tuck, she’s likely out for several more weeks according to Barnes. With outdoor track competition starting on Saturday, March 16, it’s questionable how much she will even practice with the basketball team.

Now, the question is whether the Wildcats can get to Sunday without more injuries.

Seattle University Redhawks (1-9, 0-0 WAC) @ Arizona Wildcats (8-4, 1-0 Pac-12)

When: Sunday, Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. MST

Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Viewing: Arizona Live Stream

Radio: KCUB (1390 AM) or online

Stats: Arizona Live Stats

Ratings/Rankings: Neither team is ranked in either of the polls. Arizona is No. 41 in the NET. Seattle is No. 318.

Barnes breaks down the opponent: “Seattle is gonna have a lot of different presses. They’re gonna play sagging man. We’re gonna expect a lot of zone presses to zone. And it’s funny because I know their head coach from way back when I played in the WNBA. He was a manager for the Seattle Storm, so I go way back with him. And I think it’s gonna be good for us to kind of apply some things and kind of get ready for the Pac-12. But they’re a good team. We can’t overlook them because we’ve learned our lesson from a couple other mid-major teams.”

Barnes full press conference from Dec. 29, 2023

How to follow along

Follow us on X (Twitter) @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live posts of women’s basketball games and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.