What happens when you take 16.7 points per game out of your lineup? That was the question facing the Arizona Wildcats against California on Friday night. The answer turned out to be winning 66-55 with a complete team game.
“I was feeling like it was more together today,” said forward Esmery Martinez. “We were helping more each other. We were communicating more. We were ready to win the game.”
Arizona’s starting lineup included usual starters Martinez, Jada Williams, Breya Cunningham, and Helena Pueyo, but they were not joined by leading scorer Kailyn Gilbert, who was held out by head coach Adia Barnes. Instead, freshman Skylar Jones got the first start of her career.
“[Gilbert] wasn’t available today,” Barnes said. “So just the decision not to play her...I could have tried to possibly but it would just risk injury.”
It was a nerve-racking experience for Jones. She found out at practice that she would start. She had to find out a way to get over her nervousness before the game.
“I went to sleep,” Jones said. “I had to sleep it off. I took a quick little 45-minute nap.”
Those nerves were still there early on. Jones had a steal and an assist to start Arizona’s scoring, but she followed that up with some mistakes.
“I was actually frustrated at the beginning of the game because I had two turnovers that I shouldn’t have had early,” Jones said. “And Es knows I was frustrated with it and she told me to snap out of it, get it out of my head, and then the rest of the game was smooth from there.”
The changes didn’t stop with Jones’ start. Junior guard Courtney Blakely played 26 minutes, the most since she transferred to Arizona in the offseason. Her teammates were impressed by her contributions.
“I love Courtney,” Jones said. “Courtney’s just a dog...and she played like it.”
Late in the game, Blakely dove on the floor for a loose ball. She appeared injured and stayed down for an extended period of time. Martinez picked her up.
“She’s the type of player that I don’t want to play against,” Martinez said said with a laugh. “She’s annoying.”
Barnes was also impressed by the effort of Blakely, whose confidence she has been concerned with in recent weeks.
“I thought Courtney played the way Courtney can play today,” Barnes said. “She didn’t take as many risks defensively. I thought she was super tenacious on the ball. Great energy. Good finishes. Some brilliant plays that she kind of bobbed and weaved—it reminded me of Aari [McDonald]—through defenses and just found a way to make the layups. I thought she jump-stopped and finished strong, and that’s something we were working on in practice because before she would just go up and miss. But you saw her jump-stopping and gathering—and she can jump. I thought she was really good tonight.”
With just seven players, the Wildcats leaned on Martinez, who scored a season high 20 points. She added seven rebounds, three assists, and two steals. More importantly, she had just one turnover, something she has struggled with of late.
“To be honest, I was feeling in the last couple games, I was...rushing too much, I was trying to play real fast,” Martinez said. “And because I was watching film, I was thinking that’s not my game. So I stopped. Tried to sit down and control and see what they give to me. So I just feel as though I’ve realized my own way and play my own way.”
It wasn’t just Martinez, though. Williams scored 13, nine of which came from the free throw line. She also had two rebounds, two assists, and one steal.
“Everybody scored and contributed,” Barnes said. “That’s what you want. You don’t want a big imbalance. You won’t win games like that. You may score some points but you’re not going to win like that.”
Each of the seven players scored at least six points each. The team outrebounded Cal 29-25. They had 13 assists to the Bears’ 11 and 12 steals to the opponent’s six.
On defense, Arizona held Cal to 34.9 percent shooting, five percent below its season average. The Bears ended with 13.8 points fewer than their season average.
“I think we also came in the locker room talked about how we want to win...we want to come together,” Jones said. “We need to do this. We need to get out of this losing streak. And that’s what we did today. What we did, we stood on business. That’s what we put on the locker room. and we stood on business and stood on 10 toes and we all came together.”