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Arizona women’s basketball’s inside game key to season sweep of ASU

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 04 Women’s - Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the first chapter of this year’s Territorial Cup matchup, the Arizona Wildcats were sharpshooters. They hit 13 three-point shots. Fifth-year guard Helena Pueyo went 5-for-6 to help her team win by 39. In Tucson, the Wildcats turned to pounding the ball inside in a 63-52 victory to sweep the season series.

“We were talking about—the whole week talking about feeding the post players—and it worked,” Pueyo said.

Arizona’s other fifth-year player, post Esmery Martinez, was the story this time. Martinez had eight of the Wildcats’ first 10 points. She grabbed her 10th rebound to complete a double-double with 6:54 to go in the third quarter. She ended with 18 points on 5-for-12 shooting and 15 rebounds. She also had two assists and two steals but added three turnovers on the negative side. Most importantly, she drew eight fouls and went 7-for-9 from the free-throw line while committing just one foul.

As a team, Arizona scored by getting into the paint. Whether it was on the fastbreak, the drive in the halfcourt, or the pass into the paint, the Wildcats scored 42 points inside. They went 21-for-36 on layups.

Turnovers were also a big driver for the Wildcats. Despite turning the Sun Devils over just 14 times and getting just six steals, Arizona had 21 points off turnovers.

Breya Cunningham had her best game since the last time the Wildcats played their rivals with 11 points and six rebounds. In Tempe, she had 11 points and eight rebounds. This time, she really came alive in the fourth quarter when Arizona needed her.

Arizona took an 11-point lead at 8:13 in the third quarter, but things started to unravel from there. Part of it was a very chippy environment.

The officiating was fairly hands-off in the first half. That may have encouraged the players on both sides to get even more physical out of the locker room. Technicals were assessed to players on both teams. Elbows were thrown. The Sun Devils came back to tie the game at 41 with 2:14 left in the frame with a lot of help from free throws.

One player wasn’t unhappy with the physical play. Martinez laughed when asked about the chippy play.

“Yeah, I mean, we just physical and they physical, too,” Martinez said. “So we gonna talk. We’re going to try and be physical with each other and trying to fight back. It’s just a game. We end up playing well and winning.”

For Barnes, the chippiness is a bigger concern. That kind of play can lead to injuries or suspensions that Arizona doesn’t need.

“I worry every day [about injury],” Barnes said. “I worry in practice. I worry about—so I had two freshmen that weren’t taped today, and that was a discussion because...we’re supposed to be taped just because with seven players you can’t afford injury. So I reminded them well, if you sprained your ankle in shootaround, we forfeit the game, but that’s not something a freshman thinks about. So those little things are important. Like getting thrown out of the game or suspended for the next game, those are things we can’t do.”

Martinez performed at a high level despite playing with a migraine that nauseated her. It’s not the first time this year she has either missed a game with a migraine or played with one.

“If I could get 18 and 15 with a migraine, that’s pretty good, right?” Barnes said.

Pueyo didn’t contribute much in the first half, but she came on strong with seven points, five rebounds, three assists, one steal, and no turnovers in the second half. She ended with 11 points, six rebounds, four assists, three blocks, three steals, and three turnovers.

“She was really passive in the first half,” Barnes said. “I thought there were opportunities and she was driving and she just kind of passed them. She had some layups, but she kind of skips it out because she’s so unselfish. So, I talk to her a lot about just being more aggressive and he saw and she’s aggressive, she makes great things happen,...I want her to be that aggressive from the jump, so I’m probably going to have to dictate a little bit more.”

Courtney Blakely was the fourth Wildcat who scored in double figures. She ended with 10 points, one rebound, and three assists. Like Pueyo, however, she had issues with turnovers, giving the ball away four times. She also had a technical foul when a double-technical was called on her and ASU’s Jaddan Simmons in the third quarter.

The accomplishments of the seven players on the court have been overshadowed by off-court drama. Barnes said that people send her texts when they see things on social media, particularly about the situation with Maya Nnaji. It’s not something she’s focused on. She’s focused on the seven players who are fighting to get to the postseason together.

“I want us to be our best and I want us to be professional, and the reality is the seven know the reality and the truth,” Barnes said. “And you can see it on the floor, because if we weren’t cohesive and we didn’t have great culture, they wouldn’t fight like they do. And that’s very obvious. And then I think as a spectator, as you see when we started to excel, and when we play our best—and we’re playing good basketball with seven players and not as much talent as most other teams. So if you don’t have a good cohesive’re not gonna see that on the court and that’s the reality. And I think that’s pretty obvious for people that know basketball. So those girls, they all say 10 toes down, they all fight, and they have my back, we have each other’s back, and that’s the reality. I mean, I think that really shows and that’s the most important thing for me. So you got to forget about all the noise.”