Going into the team’s final out-of-conference game of the regular season, Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes said that in the past this kind of game would have been used to get young or inexperienced players some playing time before the Pac-12 season started in earnest. That happened against Seattle University in the Wildcats’ 89-52 victory, too, but Barnes didn’t have the opportunity to do anything else. Even players who have been at Arizona for a while find themselves in different positions this year.
“It was a great way to close out 2023,” Barnes said. “I’m just happy that 2024 is here. I’m ready to get rid of 2023.”
The Wildcats used a starting lineup of Jada Williams, Breya Cunningham, Kailyn Gilbert, Isis Beh, and Helena Pueyo. That’s two freshmen, a sophomore, a transfer in her first year with UA, and a fifth-year guard who’s in her first year of starting. Esmery Martinez came in with 4:14 left in the first half, but Sali Kourouma joined the injured Montaya Dew and Erin Tuck on the bench in sweats throughout the game.
Martinez played just under 20 minutes, contributing 15 points, five rebounds, five assists, and two steals. Barnes said that she just had minor bumps and bruises that they wanted to heal up as much as possible before Colorado comes to town on Friday, Jan. 5.
Kourouma is a different story. She dislocated her shoulder against Point Loma in Arizona’s second exhibition game. That was the game they played with just five players before Kourouma was injured and Cunningham was brought in for emergency purposes. The injury occurred again in a recent practice.
“That’s just kind of been the continuous problem because it is what it is until it’s repaired,” Barnes said.
The freshmen and sophomores stepped up. Six Wildcats scored in double digits, but guards Jada Williams and Kailyn Gilbert led the Wildcats offensively.
Gilbert had a double-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and three steals. It was Gilbert’s second double-double of the season. Williams had a team-high 18 points to go with two rebounds and three assists.
“I think it’s good—we were 11 days off—and to come back and just kind of get the kinks out,” Barnes said. “And we’ve actually improved on some things we needed to.”
Cunningham and Gilbert said that they had been working on defense during the break, and they saw some improvement in that area. Gilbert also had an impressive game as far as assist-to-turnover ratio. The guard had just one turnover against a team-high six assists. Many of her turnovers this season have come in the form of offensive fouls, but the sophomore didn’t have any against the Redhawks.
“I don’t usually turn it over with pressure,” Gilbert said. “It’s more so like a sagging defense, like just getting in too deep. So, I’m just watching a lot of film, really. That’s the main thing.”
Like the rest of the team, she’s also working to be a stronger defender despite admitting that she still doesn’t like it. She just knows it needs to be done to get the playing time she wants. Heading into Pac-12 play, it’s helping Gilbert become a more well-rounded player. She was once again chosen player of the game as she stuffed the stat sheet.
Cunningham (10), Beh (10), and Helena Pueyo (12) also scored in double figures. Courtney Blakely led the team in steals with five.
Skylar Jones was a bit light on the stat sheet with two rebounds and two assists, but she impacted the game with her willingness to defend. She used her length to deflect the ball on multiple occasions, keeping Seattle from initiating its offense or scoring on the fast break.
“I wanted to see how we would respond after a tough loss in Phoenix against Gonzaga,” Barnes said. “I think it was a good game going into the Pac-12, which is going to be very challenging.”