Arizona fans can enjoy watching fifth-year senior Cate Reese at least one more time after having the pleasure of watching her start 152 games to this point in her career.
The No. 7 Wildcats and Adia Barnes are hopeful Esmery Martinez shows up again like she did against her former team, No. 10 West Virginia, when they play in the second round against No. 2 Maryland or No. 15 Holy Cross on Sunday at College Park, Md.
Reese’s 25 points, including 10 in a pivotal third quarter with Shaina Pellington on the bench with four fouls, and Martinez’s first double-double in five games was the difference in the Wildcats’ 75-62 victory over the Mountaineers.
The early tip (9 a.m., Tucson time), Martinez facing her old school, Arizona’s surprise about not being higher than a No. 7 seed, and Reese potentially feeling the pressure of playing her last game, that all did not matter.
Arizona never trailed and set the tone early, taking a 15-7 lead with 5:07 left in the first quarter.
“Everyone has their path to get to the end, and regardless of the seed, you got to win the same amount of games,” Reese said. “I think for me and for my teammates, we’re taking it one game at a time, just staying focused, not getting too high, not getting too low.
“Like Adia always says, it’s easy to be happy and have good energy when you’re up by 20 but your true character shows when you’re in a tight game. I think that we all stayed really composed today. I’m super proud of my team for finding me and getting that win.”
The victory snapped Arizona’s three-game losing streak, the longest of the season.
If the Wildcats (22-9) play against host Maryland, they’ll face former Arizona guard Brenda Frese, who played in Tucson under June Olkowski and Joan Bonvicini from 1987-92.
Martinez, who transferred to Arizona this year after being an All-Big 12 selection with the Mountaineers, finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds — her eighth double-double of the season and first since producing 15 points and 15 rebounds in an 80-57 win over California at McKale Center on Feb. 12.
Barnes said she was concerned about Martinez playing against her former school because, “I wasn’t sure how she was going to respond.”
She was encouraged, ironically, that Martinez asked for Pepto Bismol before the game because of an upset stomach.
“I knew that she’s a little bit more nervous today because I think she really had the itch to do well,” Barnes said. “(Asking for Pepto Bismol) told me nerves right away. I didn’t want to pay attention to it, but I knew it was going on. I thought she did a really good job of hanging with it.”
Martinez’s lack of production in recent weeks was the result of foul trouble. The aggressive power forward has fouled out five times this season. In Arizona’s three-game losing streak before Friday, she had four fouls against Oregon State and UCLA and played only 15 minutes with three fouls against Oregon.
“I’m proud of her today because that’s the difficult thing all year for Esmery — staying out of foul trouble, not going for blocks,” Barnes said. “I was shocked she had one foul like into the third quarter. Very good job of us being able to keep her on the floor. We are better when Esmery’s on the floor because she’s the best rebounder on the floor.”
Cate Reese balled out 🔥 pic.twitter.com/cQDLE0zzdS
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) March 17, 2023
Arizona faced a crisis situation when Pellington was called for her fourth foul with 7:44 left in the third quarter and the Wildcats leading 42-37.
Pellington was in the midst of one of her best games at Arizona, especially in the NCAA tournament, finishing with 18 points, four assists and no turnovers.
Helena Pueyo, Pellington’s immediate backup at point guard, was also in foul trouble with four fouls, two by early in the second quarter.
Although Pellington was on the bench the rest of the third quarter, the Wildcats outscored West Virginia 19-14 in that stretch to take a 61-51 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Reese had 10 points and freshman Kailyn Gilbert had four points at the point guard spot in the third quarter.
“I think the guard change (affected West Virginia),” said Mountaineers guard J.J. Quinerly, who finished with 19 points and eight rebounds. “No. 15 (Gilbert) is a totally different forward from No. 1 (Pellington). She can shoot the ball, shoot pull-ups, get to the hoop. It was a different ballgame.”
Barnes kept Pellington on the bench until 4:50 remained with Arizona leading 68-57.
Touching moment during Arizona’s postgame press conference:
Arizona freshman guard Kailyn Gilbert said she knew every game can be the last for seniors like Cate Reese. She looked at Reese and said, “From now on, you will get my best because I care about you all. So, I got you.”
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 17, 2023
Kailyn Gilbert on her steady performance with Shaina Pellington on the bench with four fouls in the second half: "I work hard every day in the gym. These are the moments I work for and I feel like I'm made for it."
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 17, 2023
Barnes decided to have Gilbert attend the postgame press conference rather than Pellington because of her steady leadership during what could have been a difficult stretch.
Pellington was also visited by many family members after the game with them traveling not too far away from Ontario, Canada.
“Kailyn came in. She’s a freshman but she didn’t play like a freshman today,” said Reese, who increased her career scoring to 1,932 points. “I’m super proud of her. She was composed the entire game.”
Gilbert, a Top 50, five-star Class of 2022 recruit, could have sulked because of her 10.7 minutes a game this season, showed her devotion to her more experienced teammates by looking at Reese and saying, “From now on, you will get my best because I care about you all. So, I got you.”
Barnes said Gilbert has matured over the season from coming in as a high-scoring guard in high school (averaging more than 30 points a game) to being more of a team player who prides herself also on defense and distributing the ball to her teammates.
“The challenge for her has been defensively giving the same effort as she does on offense and running the team because when you’re a scorer, you tend to look for yourself,” Barnes said. “I thought she was really intentional about looking for her teammates kicking the ball. I’m really proud of her.”
When Pellington re-entered the game with 4:50 left, she drove to the basket and converted to start an 8-2 stretch to help the Wildcats pull away for good.
Pellington, Gilbert and Pueyo kept Arizona to only 11 turnovers against a West Virginia team that was forcing opponents to commit 19 turnovers a game.
The Wildcats ended the first quarter on a 9-3 run to take a 28-17 lead, tying the most points scored in a first quarter this season.
Pellington had nine points and four assists with no turnovers at that point.
Wildcat W 😤#MadeForIt x #LeaveALegacy pic.twitter.com/cluYQvwLPU
— Arizona Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 17, 2023
West Virginia outscored Arizona 8-2 to cut the lead to 37-32 with 2:07 left in the second quarter.
The Wildcats led 40-33 at halftime behind Pellington’s 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field with four assists and no turnovers.
Pellington, Martinez and Reese combined for 29 points on 13-of-18 shooting from the field at that point.
Martinez averaged 7.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in Arizona’s previous five games, when the Wildcats went 2-3 and lost their last three games heading into the NCAA tournament.
She had nine points and eight rebounds at halftime.
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.