It was only an exhibition, and the Wildcats exhibited their capabilities well.
Sunday’s 85-38 rout of NCAA Division II program Eastern New Mexico carries some significance until Adia Barnes‘ team plays for keeps Nov. 5 with a home game against North Dakota.
Although against an inferior opponent, the game was an indication of what kind of team Barnes will put on the floor. Expect another tough defensive team (no Eastern New Mexico players scored in double-figures) that will push the tempo and create more opportunities for All-American point guard Aari McDonald, not only to score but to get teammates involved on the perimeter. That in turn will give Arizona’s inside game more room to operate with high-percentage shots.
“Remember, I talked to you guys at the end of (last) year that we had to spread the floor a little bit and become better shooters, recruit better shooters — and we have done that,” Barnes said in the postgame press conference. “We have multiple guards who can shoot the ball so that opens the floor a lot for Aari and for Amari (Carter) and different guards.
“I thought overall 15-for-33 from the 3 is pretty impressive.”
The 15 shots from beyond the arc were made by 10 of the 12 players who suited up for the Wildcats. Two starters did not play — sophomore forward Cate Reese was allowed to rest, Barnes said, and senior forward Tee Tee Starks is rehabilitating from a leg injury.
A confirmation of the productive offensive flow: The Wildcats were 17 of 25 (68 percent) with their shots inside the arc. Barnes was not happy with one sequence in which Arizona tried five consecutive 3-pointers but the Wildcats showed balance overall.
Arizona’s 6-foot-3 recruits Birna Benonysdottir of Iceland and Sevval Gul of Turkey were too much for the outmatched Easter New Mexico team with their inside-outside ability. They combined for 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range. Gul also pulled down seven rebounds in 26 minutes.
Returning 6-6 post player Semaj Smith started after not starting once as a freshman last season. The trimmed-down Smith was effective with 3 of 4 shooting from close to the basket for eight points to go with 10 rebounds.
“(Smith) has improved a lot,” Barnes said. “A lot of big players like to not work and just play behind. That’s not what we do. She has to be a little more disciplined. … Sevval finished around the basket. Semaj finished around the basket. That’s an area she did not do well last year.”
It was only an exhibition but the WNIT champion Wildcats drew 1,933 fans at McKale Center. That total is more than seven regular-season games last year. When Arizona hosted Eastern New Mexico in the first exhibition game last October, a crowd of 1,303 showed up.
The fans in attendance were entertained despite McDonald playing only 16 minutes (scoring a game-high 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 2 of 5 from 3-point range, and five assists). Every time an Arizona player attempted a 3-pointer, no matter who it was, fans anticipated the shot to go in the hoop.
Helena Pueyo, a 6-foot guard from Spain, made 3 of 4 shots from beyond the arc. Fellow newcomers Carter (a transfer from Penn State), Mara Mote (of Latvia) and Tara Manumaleuga (Australia) also contributed with 3-pointers.
Watching UA women’s team play reminds of early years under Lute Olson when his second team would challenge the starting lineups of most opponents. Adia Barnes’ team seriously can go 10 to 12 deep. Team is so much more balanced with talent this season with size/shooting ability.
“It’s nice because we have a lot more bodies,” said junior forward Sam Thomas, who made both of her attempts from 3-point range and finished with eight points. “We’re able to go at each other a lot harder (in practice) with more reps for everyone. We have a bunch of foreigners and Europeans. We have someone from Australia.
“Going against their different style of play. It’s nice to challenge us a little bit so we’re ready for other teams who maybe play a little bit different.”
Barnes managed the game well, utilizing 12 players with 11 of them playing double-digit minutes. Benonysdottir played the least with six minutes.
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When the season gets underway and the Wildcats near the Pac-12 schedule at the turn of the year, the question of team chemistry will come into play because of all the minutes that must be divided among at least 10 capable players. Barnes is welcoming six international recruits who are freshmen and Carter to go along with 94 percent of the scoring returning from last year’s 24-win team.
“Our chemistry is great,” Barnes said. “They’re really good kids. We’ve done a lot of team-building stuff. … They want to be great teammates. We don’t recruit any bad kids. I didn’t think that was going to be a problem because we already have a really good chemistry.
“My job was to get kids who fit with that and add to what we have, not take it away.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.