It wasn’t a pretty game, and it wasn’t without its obstacles, but Arizona women’s basketball was able to avoid the fate of the Wildcat men with an opening win in the NCAA tournament. UA defeated West Virginia 75-62 at the XFINITY Center in College Park, Md. on Friday morning.
“We all know it’s hard to get your first win in March,” said Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. “West Virginia is coached really well. They have two dynamic guards. Just coached well, play a good style, turn you over. I thought we did a really good job of sticking to the game plan and found a way to win. It wasn’t always pretty, but the players did what I asked them to do. So just really proud of them.”
Arizona struggled with fouls. Both of Arizona’s primary ballhandlers missed large chunks of the game. Shaina Pellington and Helena Pueyo had four fouls in the third quarter.
“Helena didn’t play good today,” Barnes said.” It wasn’t her game. Helena is important for us. We are better when she’s playing better. If I look at the guards, Shaina played well, she carried us for a while. It wasn’t Helena’s night.”
Pellington was hot early despite ESPN reporting that she suffered an ankle injury in practice on Thursday. She had nine points and four assists against no turnovers in the first quarter, but the foul trouble started to creep in early.
Pellington sat for the last five minutes of the first half, a period when WVU was able to shave a couple of points off the lead. The fouls came quickly in the third quarter, too. Pellington picked up two fouls in a five-second period and went to the bench with 7:43 to go in the third.
“So the first thing is, I always say this to Shaina, is when Shaina had the third foul, I know better by now, just knowing her for years, that she was going to get the fourth,” Barnes said. “I had somebody waiting to sub her. Now that’s going to be more of a sense of urgency to do that. Going for that fourth, she has to be a little bit more disciplined and not do that because we really need her on the floor.”
Pueyo picked up her fouls fairly quickly, too. She left with four fouls at the 5:29 mark in the third quarter. What could have been disastrous for Arizona was saved by the efforts of freshman Kailyn Gilbert.
Gilbert played for 14 minutes, scoring five points and getting two assists. Most importantly, she ran the team in the absence of two guards who have played in a national title game. The only negative was her four turnovers, but Barnes was not overly concerned about them.
Gilbert didn’t think she would go back in after she came out earlier in the game. When he number was called, she said she was ready both because of the work she puts in every day and because her teammates helped her stay in the moment.
“I think a lot of it just goes to my teammates, people like Lemyah [Hylton], Paris [Clark], Pueyo, Madi [Conner, them on the bench kind of encouraging me, letting me know, Kailyn, you might go in, be ready,” Gilbert said. “Them saying that, me analyzing what’s going on on the court, helped me stay locked in and ready so when the opportunity came, I was ready.”
As for the Mountaineers, the players said that the change in primary point guard made it difficult to adjust in the third quarter, since the defense had prepared for Pellington’s style of play.
“I think the guard change,” WVU guard JJ Quinerly said when asked how Arizona was able to pull away again in the third. “No. 15 is a totally different guard from No. 1. She can shoot the ball, shoot pull-ups, get to the hoop. It was a different ballgame. We changed up our screens. Then went to our man not helping, and then layups. We just got to rotate better.”
It was the Arizona front court that was the real difference, though. A guard-oriented Mountaineers team had no answers for Cate Reese and Esmery Martinez. When Pellington had to go out, the Wildcats became a front court-oriented team.
“The reason why we had to do that was because of Shaina,” Barnes said. “Shaina is our best player at getting to the rim, best player going down the line, very hard to guard. With her out of the game, we had to switch it. The good thing was in the past we weren’t able to switch. This year we showed we can win in different ways. We’ve been a really good three-point shooting team in some games. Not lately, not today. Then we’ve been a team that can finish inside. I think we’ve been a team that can press you and turn you over.”
Reese had a game-high 25 points to go with six rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. Seventeen of her points and two of her assists came in the second half when Arizona began pounding the ball inside.
Against her former team, Martinez had Arizona’s first double-double in the NCAA tournament since Trinity Baptiste and Aari McDonald both had one in the 2021 Elite Eight against Indiana. Martinez had 13 points, 12 rebounds, one assist, a steal, and two blocks.
The double-double for @ArizonaWBB's Esmery Martinez is the 1st by a Wildcat in a #MarchMadness game since Trinity Baptiste & Aari McDonald had ones in 2021 Elite 8 vs Indiana— Greg Mroz (@GregDMroz) March 17, 2023
CC @PJBrown09 @KimDoss71
“I’m proud of her today because the difficult thing all year for Esmery has been staying out of foul trouble, not going for blocks,” Barnes said. “I was shocked she had one foul into the third quarter...We are better when Esmery is on the floor because she’s the best rebounder on the floor. Just proud of how she responded.”
Despite playing only 20 minutes, Pellington had 18 points, two rebounds, and four assists. She did not turn the ball over against a team that forces 19 turnovers per game.
It wasn’t all about points, though. Barnes was happy with the play of some of her team members who scored very little. Paris Clark went 0-4 from the floor and had just one point, but as Barnes has said all season, it’s not all about offense.
“I also like a lot of things that Paris did,” Barnes said. “They don’t show up on the stat sheet. She was 0-4, I could care less. She had some hustle plays. It was not Madi’s best game. She missed some layups, turned it over. She had some great 50/50 balls.”
Arizona started strong, scoring the most points they have in one quarter this season with 28. On the other end, WVU was doing well with 17 points, but the pace of the game was very much in the Wildcats’ favor. The Mountaineers averaged 66.0 points per game this season compared to 74.4 for Arizona.
When halftime rolled around, Pellington already had 12 points and both Martinez and Reese were hanging around double figures.
“I think anything we tried to get into from a defensive standpoint, we really had a hard time slowing them down and taking away some of their actions,” said WVU head coach Dawn Plitzuweit.
Meanwhile, WVU top scorers Madisen Smith and Quinerly combined for just 11, primarily by Quinerly. Quinerly ended the game with 19, nine of which came from the free throw line, but Smith was never able to get going. She wound up with seven points on 2-14 shooting.
The Mountaineers were leaning on their third-leading scorer Jayla Hemingway, who had nine points in the first half, less than half a point below her per-game average this season. She ended with 11.
The third quarter was a physical, whistle-fueled affair. WVU closed the lead to three several times, getting 10 of its 18 points from the line.
“Honestly, in the third quarter there was one point when [the free throw disparity] was 12-1,” Barnes said. “I was a little ticked off. But we also think we’re, like, I don’t know, we all of a sudden became these shot-blockers. We were fouling a lot. I kind of complained about it, but we were hacking a lot. I think being more disciplined when you have a lead is very important for us. We are going to look at film and get better at that. Especially I talked earlier, Shaina has a third foul. You don’t go for a blocked shot. The only guard I know that I allow to block a jump shooter is Sam Thomas. Sam Thomas does not play for Arizona anymore. I don’t teach it. I don’t want it. You should never foul a jump shooter. You are not going to block them 99 percent of the time, you are going to foul them. Why we think we can wind up and karate chop, I have no idea. That is not what Adia Barnes teaches.”
Arizona started pulling away in the last half of the third, eventually building the lead to 10 points heading into the final 10 minutes of the game. The Wildcats led by as many as 17 in the final quarter.
The Wildcats will face the second-seeded Maryland Terrapins, who defeated Holy Cross in the second game of the day in College Park. It will match up two coaches who played for Joan Bonvicini at Arizona in Barnes and Brenda Frese. Frese began her coaching career at Pima Community College in Tucson after medically retiring from basketball.
As for how Arizona is viewing its path as a No. 7 seed, Reese was philosophical about it.
“Everyone has their path to get to the end,” Reese said. “Regardless of the seed, you got to win the same amount of games.”