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Career days from Courtney Blakely, Skylar Jones can’t lift Arizona women’s basketball over No. 6 Stanford

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 28 Women’s - Stanford at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes was looking forward to seeing legendary Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer and congratulating her in person for becoming the leader in career coaching wins in men’s or women’s basketball. VanDerveer was recognized in McKale Center before the game. Then her team went about blowing out the short-handed Wildcats by the score of 96-64.

“We did get our butts kicked, and we got stomped, but they’re not defeated,” Barnes said about her players.

For the second straight game, Arizona played without leading scorer Kailyn Gilbert. Gilbert is “unavailable,” according to Barnes. The coach did not elaborate beyond that but she said that the situation could be permanent.

“It would be the hardest year of the league the year that we have seven players,” Barnes said. “Because we’re probably gonna have seven players for a while and possibly the rest of the season.”

Freshman Skylar Jones got the second start of her young career. She made the most of it.

Jones scored a career-high 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting in just under 37 minutes. She had an assist, three rebounds, and two steals without turning the ball over.

“Today was better,” Jones said. “I wasn’t as nervous. It probably looked like it when I was playing, too, that I wasn’t as nervous as I was before. I still had butterflies, but I wasn’t as nervous as I was before.”

Junior Courtney Blakely also had a career day. She scored 24 points off the bench. It bested her career high of 18, set last year when she played for Middle Tennessee State. She did it on an efficient 11-for-20 shooting. That included hitting two of her three 3-point shots. She added one rebound, one assist, and four steals in just under 32 minutes of play.

Barnes and Blakely both put her improvement down to the increased confidence and a talk the two of them had. It started with a chance encounter when Blakely was going to class. Barnes picked her up and drove her across campus.

“I just had like a five or 10-minute talk with her and I told her some things and she really applied them and played like a different player on Friday,” Barnes said. “I just explained to her that, like come in and just be solid. You don’t have to come in and score a three or get a steal. Come in and be solid and then let the game come. And I explained that it’s hard if you come in right away and it’s a turnover. These are one-possession games. We lost those four games that are off one point or two points. So just explaining the importance of that and she’s really done that. She’s been more solid, not turning the ball over, and doing the little things, and getting into the game. So when you do those things, we play you more. I can leave you in the game. But when you come in, and it’s a seven-point swing, it’s normal, you’re gonna come out. And I told her how many minutes we need her to play. I told her at that time, we need to play 20 minutes, and I think that gave her just a little bit of confidence. And I think sometimes those little things that you instill in players, like they can kind of take a deep breath and decompress and start over. And she’s done that and she’s actually applied the things that I’ve told her specifically. And that’s not easy to do.”

The pair were part of a trio of Wildcat guards who finished with double-digit points. Freshman point guard Jada Williams had 14. Williams was only 4 for 17 from the field, but she again made good use of getting fouled. She hit five of her six free throws. Williams also had an assist and two rebounds.

Arizona got crushed on the boards. The Cardinal grabbed 49 rebounds to the Wildcats’ 21. The combination of Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen was difficult to deal with. Brink had 25 points and 19 rebounds in just over 25 minutes. Iriafen was limited to 19.5 minutes due to fouls but she still scored 21 points and grabbed nine boards.

Dealing with the tandem caused problems for the Wildcat bigs. Breya Cunningham, Esmery Martinez, and Isis Beh each had three fouls in the first half. Cunningham played just 12 minutes before fouling out.

“We just a team that’s gonna play hard,” Jones said. “So it don’t matter if we have a lot of smalls that we have on bigs, we’re gonna do our best to do what we can. We’re gonna try our best to do what we can do with whoever’s on the floor. So if that means I’m gonna have to go on Cameron Brink, I’m just gonna have to try and do my best.”

Both teams spent a lot of time at the free-throw line. Stanford shot 20 free throws, hitting 19 of them. Arizona shot 23 but missed nine of them. The Wildcats also forced 16 turnovers—10 coming on steals—and scored 15 points off those. Those positives just weren’t enough.

“We got there and we just missed them—and we’ve been really good on free throws,” Barnes said. “So that was tough. We needed to make those, but that wasn’t a difference in the game. I think that we made good plays. Like, we had some great steals in our full-court press, but then when we made a mistake, it’s a three. That’s what the difference is with really good teams.”

Despite the big loss and the difficulty of playing with seven players, Barnes was encouraged.

“Now our team is united,” Barnes said. “I know our team has each other’s backs. I know they’re cohesive, that group of seven, and I’m going to build off that and we’re gonna be better.”

While this was the last meeting between Arizona and Stanford in Tucson as members of the Pac-12, neither coach thought it was the last time the two teams would meet in McKale.

“We can play them without it being a conference game,” VanDerveer said. “Or maybe someday some smart people get together and we’ll be back in the same conference again.”