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Arizona fails to maintain first-half intensity in loss to No. 10 USC

Esmery Martinez (12) and Isis Beh (33) huddle with their Arizona teammates at the Galen Center in the Wildcats’ loss to USC on Feb. 12, 2024.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats kept it close against No. 10 USC for a half on Monday night. As has been typical of the team, the collapse started in the second quarter and accelerated after halftime on the way to a 81-64 USC victory in the Galen Center.

“We had a really good first quarter,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “I think second quarter, they got a little hot. We just had a really tough time containing JuJu (Watkins). She’s a really tough matchup for us. We had numerous people in foul trouble. And then we just kind of, I think, didn’t as a team play with a sense of urgency after that.”

Arizona was effective on defense in the first quarter. The Wildcats held USC to 20 percent shooting over the first 10 minutes. UA wasn’t great on offense, but its 33.3 percent shooting was considerably better than its opponent’s shooting.

The Women of Troy started to find the basket in the second period. Their success rate shot up to 81.8 percent, but they weren’t able to pull away from Arizona. The Wildcats also improved their shooting, going for 56.3 percent in the second quarter.

The Wildcats kept it close by doing work on the boards in the first half. They outrebounded USC 17-11 over the first 20 minutes. UA made good use of those rebounds, especially on the offensive end. It ended the half with nine second-chance points compared to zero for USC.

USC eventually came out on top in the rebounding battle, winning the boards 34-29. UA ended with 13 offensive boards to USC’s eight but only won the battle for second chance points 13-12.

USC made its big move from beyond the arc. After going 1 for 9 in the first quarter, the Women of Troy hit all six of their 3-point shots in the second quarter. They ended the night 11 for 22 from outside. Kayla Padilla led the way with 5-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc.

Arizona used a box and one defense to somewhat contain JuJu Watkins, especially in the first half. Watkins still ended the night with 32 points, but the Wildcats held her below her season shooting percentages. She connected on 39.1 percent of her shots from the field compared to 43.1 percent for the season. She was good on 33.3 percent of her 3-point shots compared to 34.7 percent this season.

They couldn’t keep Watkins off the line, though. She went 12 for 12 from the free-throw line. That was well above her season average of 7.4 free throw attempts per game.

After getting things going in the second quarter, USC kept the momentum out of the locker room. As it has in many games this season, Arizona allowed the opponent to build a lead in the third quarter. USC’s 37-33 lead at halftime was a 60-44 lead after 30 minutes.

For most of the game, the Wildcats avoided the foul trouble that has plagued their frontcourt players this season. Helena Pueyo, who guarded Watkins early in the game, picked up two fouls halfway through the first quarter and Courtney Blakely had two fouls in two seconds, Breya Cunningham and Isis Beh were able to go most of the game without being forced to sit with fouls. Esmery Martinez picked up her third early in the third quarter and eventually fouled out, but the foul situation was much less severe than it has been for the Wildcats in many of their games.

“Breya did a really good job,” Barnes said. “She’s really trying to do the things we’ve asked her. She’s being a lot more proactive on defense. I think moving her feet better. You’re right, not in a lot of foul trouble. I thought missed some shots around the basket because (Rayah) Marshall makes you alter some shots...I think she’s a little down right now just because it’s hard when you’re missing shots, but I thought she did some really good things and that she’s growing and getting better.”

Arizona ended with four players in double figures. Martinez and Skylar Jones both had 13 points. Martinez did it on 6-of-10 shooting. Jones went 3 of 9 from the floor, but she was 2 for 3 from the 3-point line and 5 for 6 from the free-throw line.

Jones added six rebounds, one block, and three steals but also had three turnovers. Martinez added seven rebounds, three assists, and a steal, but she also had issues with turnovers. The forward ended her night with five giveaways.

The continued improvement of Jones is a high point of the season for Barnes.

“Skylar was awesome,” Barnes said. “She’s really sick right now. We have a cold going around the team, but she played her heart out. She played solid defense. She played good on offense. She attacked the rim. I thought she did amazing. I think she’s just continuing to get better every single game and she’s doing everything we ask her and she’s a great kid. She’s someone I really want to build around, and I just love coaching her.”

Kailyn Gilbert had 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting off the bench. She contributed two rebounds and one assist as well as adding one turnover to the team’s total of 15 giveaways.

Jada Williams was the fourth player who scored in double digits. She had 10 points and three assists with one turnover. She hit 4 of 11 shots and connected on 33.3 percent of her 3-point shots.

The Wildcats got most of their early scoring from Pueyo. She scored four of Arizona’s first six points but only scored four more the rest of the game. She added one rebound, one assist, one block, and five steals.

Pueyo also had one turnover and committed four fouls while being the primary defender on Watkins. The most painful of the fouls was the last one. Pueyo fouled Watkins on a long 3-point shot with five seconds left in the third quarter just after Arizona cut the lead to 13. The ball had no hope of going in, but Watkins sank all three free throws.

Both Williams and Martinez appeared to suffer injuries during the game. Williams left for several minutes but was able to return. Martinez was injured committing her fifth foul. She had to be helped from the floor.

“Those kids play their hearts out,” Barnes said. “They have great mentalities, great attitudes every single day. Some people probably wouldn’t have gone back in the game at this point, but those two are—they’re difference makers and kids I really believe in...Thank God they’re okay.”

The Wildcats now return home to face Washington State and Washington. They will be must-win games if Arizona (12-12, 4-8) wants to keep its postseason hopes alive. Following that, they finish the season by going to the Bay Area and hosting the Los Angeles schools. Three of the final four games are against top 10 opponents.

Regardless of who the opponents are, Barnes thinks that success will only come one way.

“It’s gonna be hard to win a lot of games if we don’t change our mentality,” she said. “I think there’s just a lot of people hanging their heads, really kind of worried about their individual performances versus the team, and we’re not going to win a lot like that. So my message to the team, it’s not about winning or losing. I think it’s about this is who we are and this is what we have and everybody being on the same page, fighting for the same goals if we want to win. If not, we’re not gonna win another game this year. So I think that there’s some kids that really want it, and I think it shows on the floor. And some kids just want to play by themselves and that shows on the court, too. But we know we’re not gonna win games like that. So whether we finished the season with five players and three more walk-ons...I know that everybody that’s going to play and earn playing time, they’re going to be playing as a team. They’re gonna play offense and defense, are gonna have good attitudes and a good work ethic, or they’re gonna rot on the bench. And I don’t care.”