The Arizona Wildcats proved they don’t need leading scorer Kailyn Gilbert to win. They had their most complete game on Friday night when they played California with just seven players, defeating the Golden Bears by 11 to end a four-game losing streak. Sixth-ranked Stanford is a completely different challenge, though.
“They play their percentages,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “We know we’re going to be open every possession. They’re not going to guard us...If we don’t have a high-percentage shot from three, they’re not going to guard us. So I think being patient...similar to how you’d play against Oregon State....You need to reverse the ball and try to attack on the backside. Pull (Cameron Brink) away from the basket, and then we have to guard Cameron. We may have to do some different double-teaming schemes because she’s hard for us to handle one-on-one and that’s the reality.”
Gilbert was held out Friday night so as not to risk injury according to Barnes. The sophomore guard was in full uniform, unlike the three Wildcats who are out for the season. Arizona started Skylar Jones in her place and got quality minutes from Courtney Blakely. The Wildcats were led is scoring by Jada Williams, who attacked the basket and got fouled a lot, and Esmery Martinez but they got at least six points from all seven players.
The Wildcats didn’t hit their scoring average of just over 71 points without Gilbert, but they seemed to share and move without the ball better than they have all season. They also held the Golden Bears to just 55 points, several points below their season average.
“We didn’t ever force,” Barnes said. “We had assists to layups, and that’s how you want to play because everybody runs harder. And that’s just the type of basketball we have to play. And we were better like that. So when Kailyn comes back, we’ll play the same. Sharing, distributing, even. That’s just that’s how we’re gonna win. We’re not gonna win another way.”
The biggest test likely won’t be for the guards. Post players Martinez, Breya Cunningham, and Isis Beh will have the big task of trying to contain Brink and Kiki Iriafen.
It will be a special challenge for Cunningham, who has been thrown into the fire against some top post players as a freshman. From Alissa Pili to Raegan Beers to Bella Murekatete to Quay Miller and Aaronette Vonleh, Cunningham has to try to guard and score on the top interior talent on a daily basis.
“It’s like, ‘Welcome to the Big Leagues, Breya,’” Barnes said. “You got a couple All-Americans every weekend. But I think it’s good experience for her. It’s stuff that’s going to pay off later. She’s going against All-Americans. They’re gonna be pros. And so I think for her, it’s a chance to go at them, and I think that’s fun. I think she probably gets nervous...but that’s what it’s all about. I think that’s how you learn to get better. You get better when you’re uncomfortable.”
Brink averages a double-double. She is good for 17.1 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. She blocks 3.2 shots per game, which is fourth in Division I. Iriafen also averages a double-double with 18.9 points and 11 rebounds per game.
Cunningham could learn from both upperclassmen, especially Brink. Like Cunningham, Brink was extremely prone to foul trouble when she got to college. She averaged 2.8 fouls per game her freshman and sophomore seasons. That jumped as high as 3.1 per game in conference play during her second year in college.
Cunningham has dealt with that frustration as a freshman. She is a shot blocker like Brink, blocking 2.0 shots per game to rank 38th in Division I. That can get her into trouble quickly depending on how the game is officiated. She is averaging 3.7 fouls per game in her rookie campaign. That goes up to 4.1 per game in Pac-12 games.
Arizona needs Cunningham in the game if it’s going to stay in the game against the Cardinal. How quickly can she adapt?
No. 6 Stanford Cardinal (18-2, 6-1 Pac-12) @ Arizona Wildcats (11-9, 3-5 Pac-12)
When: Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024 at 12 p.m. MST
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
TV/Streaming: The game will air on Pac-12 Network and Pac-12 Bay Area. It will stream in the Pac-12 Now app or on pac-12.com. Both require a TV provider log-in.
Radio: Varsity Network
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
Standings and Rankings: Stanford is ranked No. 6 by the Associated Press and No. 5 by the WBCA/USA Today. Arizona in not ranked in either major poll.
The Cardinal are No. 3 in the NET. The Wildcats are No. 42.
Win Probabilities: Her Hoop Stats gives Stanford an 88 percent win probability in Tucson. The Cardinal are favored by 14.4 points and the total points are projected to be 134.7.
Massey gives Stanford a 72 percent win probability in McKale Center. The most likely score is 72-64.