Playing with only seven players in a rotation is not always a detriment.
In fact, it could be a very good thing because all who play know their roles and realize they’ll likely get their fair share of minutes.
Arizona has only 11 scholarship players — mostly by design by Adia Barnes to improve team cohesiveness — and three of the players were not in uniform Wednesday night for the first exhibition game against West Texas A&M, won by the Wildcats 103-58 in front of an announced crowd of 6,400 at McKale Center.
Highly-touted freshman post player Breya Cunningham, wing Skylar Jones and guard Courtney Blakely are active players who did not play because of minor, nagging injuries, according to Barnes in a press conference Tuesday. Jones is under concussion protocol, Barnes stated, and was not in attendance.
“We were a little gassed at the very end, but we played with seven players, and really not a guard sub off the bench,” Barnes said in the postgame radio interview Wednesday with Derrick Palmer on KTUC 1400-AM.
“We’re getting there. We’re not going to be in our best shape right now, but we’re working towards it.”
Arizona suffered two personnel losses heading into the season.
It was announced in August that freshman forward Montaya Dew will not play this season after undergoing knee surgery and former post player Fanta Gassama (a JC transfer from Georgia) reportedly left the program and transferred to New Mexico State (the school Arizona opens the season against at Las Cruces, N.M., on Nov. 6).
— Sophomore sensation Kailyn Gilbert had a game-high 24 points with seven rebounds, five assists and five steals in the win over West Texas A&M.
“She’s playing defense,” Barnes said to Palmer in mock amazement. “She can defend and we saw that she is playing great on-the-ball defense. She has a sense of urgency with it; last year she did not. She’s playing good team basketball. She’s a natural scorer. We talk about fitness — she’s in some of the best shape of her life. She’s strong right now. She’s really played at a high level. She wants to prove to me that she can play defense and I should have played her more last year. She was out on a mission today.”
— Arizona shot 12 of 24 from 3-point range, led by post player Esmery Martinez (3 of 4), Helena Pueyo (4 of 5) and Gilbert (4 of 6).
“It’s funny because we do not have as much talent as far as shooting abilities that we did last year,” Barnes said. “But we have a lot more unselfishness. So we’re getting better shots. I thought we forced a couple of shots. But besides that, I thought we were very unselfish, really looking for each other and sharing the ball well — sharing on defense and offense. I thought we did a good job playing team basketball.”
— Martinez’s shots from the perimeter playing at the wing were effective.
“I played Esmery at the 3 (wing forward) and the 4 (power forward) so we have a lot more size,” Barnes said. “She plays the 3. I thought one 3(-pointer), she took was really flat in the corner on the other end. But besides that, those are good looks. She’s got to go stretch the defense.”
— Pueyo, a fifth-year senior, had 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field with seven assists. She also had a steal and blocked shot.
“Pueyo’s amazing. I just love everything about her game. Defensively, offensively, she’s selfless,” Barnes said. “She has the highest basketball IQ on the floor. She makes us better. She’s hard to take off the floor. She plays for us 1 through 4 She doesn’t take bad shots. You can see she’s more aggressive this year. My expectation for her Helena — you saw today she took 10 shots, that’s a minimum. She needs to take 10 to 15 shots for us to be successful because this is what she does. If we can get her to 15 shots, we need her to, and for us to win, she has to do that. She takes great shots. She doesn’t take bad shots. That’s what I love about her game.”
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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 in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.