On Wednesday, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said that the Wildcats had been getting off to slow starts and she would have to figure that out. The possibility of starting lineup changes was broached. Barnes followed through with that on Thursday in an 81-38 win over UC San Diego. Her team followed through with the intentional changes she made to the offense.
“We did a much better job of starting off the game with more intensity,” Barnes said. “If you watched the UNLV game and this game, a much different start for us. And that was intentional. I thought we shared the ball better than we have all season. So that was also intentional. And I know fans don’t like it when pass those shots, but there was a strategic plan and we had some rules to follow. And I think that as we progress and get older and more mature and just more experienced, you don’t have to put those rules in place. But right now, where we’re at and who we are and what we need is we need that, and I think it shows because our efficiency was the best it’s been by far.”
To that point, the Wildcats shot 52.5 percent from the field including 10 for 20 from outside.
While it will be the offense that most people talk about, it all started on the defensive end. The Wildcats came out aggressive. No one scored until 7:12 in the first quarter when Kailyn Gilbert got the first two of Arizona’s 26 second-chance points, but Arizona held the Tritons to just seven shots in the opening quarter. The visitors only hit two of them, scoring seven points in the first 10 minutes.
“We talked about that being a main factor,” Jada Williams said. “No matter what team we’re playing. We’re known for defense. So we just got to bring it every game. We practice that a lot at practice, so it’s pointless if we don’t carry it over to the game.”
Once Gilbert knocked the lid off the bucket for UA, the offense picked up for the whole team. The Wildcats missed their first two shots before hitting six of their next 10 to close out the first quarter shooting 50 percent (6 for 12).
The offense was even more efficient in the second quarter. The Wildcats went 11 for 17 from the field including 4 for 6 from the 3-point line. Barnes chocks that up to better ball movement. For just the second time all season, the Wildcats had more assists than turnovers. The only other time was against NAU in the home opener.
The decrease in turnovers in the past two games is a step forward for the team. The 14 turnovers were still too many for Barnes, but they have averaged around 20 for most of the season.
Everyone on the team except Esmery Martinez played double-digit minutes. Barnes said Martinez is a little sore, and they need her to be 100 percent over the next two weeks. Besides, it gave other players the opportunities to show themselves and the fans what they’re capable of.
Courtney Blakely went 3 for 5 from the field and hit both of the 3-point shots she took. She had two rebounds, three assists, and two steals in just under 20 minutes of play. Seven of her 10 points came over seven minutes in the second quarter.
Skylar Jones played just over 21 minutes and went 3 for 3 from the floor with all three buckets coming from beyond the arc. She added four rebounds, an assist, and a steal.
The team was led in scoring by Williams who hit 5 of 9 shots for 15 points. She also had one rebound, one assist, and five steals. Sali Kourouma also hit double digits with 13 points, and Breya Cunningham had a double-double with 12 points and 10 assists. Cunningham added four assists and three blocks.
“People are doing what their roles are, and I think we just didn’t do that last game,” Barnes said. “And it worries me when the things we can control, we don’t do. You can always control your energy. You can always control your effort, so I wanted to see that today. And I challenged them and we did that.”
Now, the Wildcats need to take that effort into a very tough stretch. They will play No. 5 Texas on Wed., Dec. 13. On the 17th, they play ASU in their Pac-12 opener and first rivalry game. That’s followed by Gonzaga, who just beat Stanford, on Dec. 20.
“We got better this game,” Barnes said. “So that’s why I’m optimistic. And we’re playing some really good teams coming up, but they were able to do the things I challenged them to do and the things we focused on for the last few days.”