With a game-time decision dropping Arizona to just seven players for its Pac-12 home opener and No. 5 Colorado on the other end of the court, the Wildcats had to use any advantage it could find. Aggressive defense and driving on offense were two that worked well for them—just not quite well enough in the 75-74 loss at McKale Center. It was Colorado’s first win in McKale Center since 2015.
Other than Jaylyn Sherrod, Arizona matched up well with the Buffaloes as far as quickness. They used that advantage early in the game to get to the rim. They attempted 58 shots; 28 of them were layups. They outscored CU 48-42 in the paint despite not having any depth on the interior. They focused on Frida Formann on both offense and defense, blowing by her on offense and holding her to 0-for-5 shooting from beyond the arc on defense.
“We were intentional,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “So, one of the keys was finding her in transition. She loves to run off the right side, therefore not letting her get back...I don’t even think we her back cuts that we gave everybody else.”
The problem was maintaining their effectiveness throughout the game, especially on offense. The Wildcats took 28 of their 32 layup attempts in the first half. The Buffaloes dropped into a zone in the fourth quarter, and the Wildcats forgot how to work against that defense. Suddenly, they focused on jump shots, especially from beyond the arc.
After shooting just three 3-pointers in the first half, the Wildcats launched eight in the second half. They connected on three of those in the second half with two of the three coming in the final quarter.
“They went zone so we had to kind of adjust our aggressiveness because they’re packing the paint,” Arizona guard Jada Williams said. “We kind of anticipated they would do that because they do that most games at the end of the game...A lot of times we’d have like the corner open, but they’re really big. They have Quay [Miller] that’s playing on the perimeter for us, and I’m a 5-8 guard that can’t see over her.”
Perhaps sensing how much the team needed their energy, the crowd of 7,386 was boisterous throughout. When Arizona scored six points over 36 seconds to cut the second-quarter lead to one point, McKale exploded. Colorado called time, but it didn’t really slow Arizona.
The Wildcats were getting their layups on drives to the basket in the half-court offense and in transition. They turned the Buffaloes over 13 times in the first half and scored 14 points off those giveaways. Meanwhile, UA turned the ball over just eight times in the first half and six more in the second half.
The Buffs were able to adapt in the second 20 minutes. They only gave the ball away six times after halftime.
Where Arizona did not match up well was on the boards. With Esmery Martinez often drifting out to the 3-point line, she was not in place to grab offensive rebounds. As a team, the Wildcats didn’t grab a rebound on either end of the court until Helena Pueyo got one on the defensive end at 4:38 in the first quarter.
Barnes was surprised that the game was so close considering that the Buffs outrebounded the ‘Cats 41-21 overall and 17-3 on the offensive boards.
“To lose by one giving up 17 offensive rebounds is pretty remarkable,” Barnes said. “I mean, you should lose, but in our conference, you could lose by 30 doing that.”
A big reason they didn’t lose by 30 is that the team didn’t give away the third quarter as it has against tough competition earlier in the season. When they emerged from the locker room, the Wildcats were the ones to score first. The team worked together to get Pueyo the shot and Pueyo connected.
“Definitely wanted to get Helena involved,” Barnes said. “We want to kind of make them have to guard us in some action. When Helena is at the four, their post has to guard a guard, and she’s really effective at popping and stuff, but I felt like we didn’t do a great job of looking for her in similar situations. Which in those other things like the film we have to learn off of...so we can see what areas we need to get better at.”
The Wildcats continued to roll off successful play after successful play until they had an eight-point lead early in the fourth quarter. That’s when Colorado went to zone, making the adjustment that gave Arizona its toughest time.
The Wildcats still had their chances at the end. The team had the ball with 20 seconds on the clock. The first attempt to hit the game-winner was missed by Kailyn Gilbert. The second one, which came with just over two seconds on the clock, was missed by Breya Cunningham.
Pueyo was one of two Wildcats to score just under double figures. She had nine points on 4-for-7 shooting, a team-high six rebounds, three assists, and three steals. She didn’t turn the ball over.
Her fellow fifth-year senior Martinez was not as successful with the ball in her hands. Despite being one of only two actual posts among the available Wildcats, she spent a lot of time trying to drive or handle the ball on the perimeter. That resulted in fewer rebounds than typical (two defensive rebounds) and a game-high five turnovers.
In addition to the pair of Wildcats with nine points, three others scored in double figures. Kailyn Gilbert led the team with 19 points. She added five rebounds and two assists but had four turnovers.
Williams scored 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting. She added two rebounds, a team-high five assists, and one steal. Williams had just one turnover.
Cunningham rounded out the trio with 11 points and three rebounds. She also had one steal.
Barnes saw a lot that she found encouraging.
“I tell them this is fun,” Barnes said. “Every weekend, we’re gonna have in our head like it’s just a fun thing. It’s like you want to play against the best. You don’t want blow outs. You want to try to win games, and every game is tough, and that’s why we’re in the best conference in the country. We love it. It’s our last year here, so we’re gonna enjoy every moment of it.”