Arizona emphatically answered any immediate questions of how it would fare in its first road game after losing third-leading scorer Maya Nnaji by shooting 56.7 percent from the field (65 percent from 3-point range) in a 91-52 rout of Arizona State on Sunday in Tempe.
Fifth-year senior guard Helena Pueyo, the lone remaining player from the 2020-21 team that played in the NCAA title game against Stanford, made a career-best five 3-pointers and finished with 18 points.
Kailyn Gilbert made 7 of 10 shots from the field and finished with 19 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Arizona, which had all nine of its players score, produced a season-high 24 assists with 12 turnovers compared to only four assists by Arizona State, which also had 13 turnovers.
Gilbert’s assist total matched that of Arizona State and five Wildcats had three assists.
The Wildcats (8-3) won their Pac-12 opener by taking control early, building on their 24-18 lead after the first quarter by overpowering the Sun Devils 28-8 in the second quarter.
The Wildcats led 52-24 at halftime behind 72.4 percent shooting (21 of 29) from the field and 81.8 percent (9 of 11) from 3-point range.
The Wildcats tallied 14 assists and all but one of its nine players scored in the first half.
“This is what we can expect; this is the kind of offense we need to play in the first half, where we’re sharing it doing that positive assist-to-turnover ratio,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said in the 1290-AM radio postgame show.
“I thought we turned it over a little bit but 24 (assists) and 12 (turnovers) — that is a great stat line. So this was one of our best games. It wasn’t 40 minutes, but I’d say it was about 30 and we shared the ball a lot better.”
Nnaji, Arizona’s third-leading scorer, announced Friday that she is leaving the basketball program to concentrate on her academics as a pre-med major.
She was absent for Wednesday’s game at McKale Center against No. 5 Texas, which won the game 88-75 but had to repel a fourth-quarter rally by the Wildcats.
Arizona built off that 23-12 edge in the fourth quarter against the Longhorns with its early performance against Arizona State (7-4).
The only player who did not score by halftime was freshman forward Breya Cunningham, who was whistled for two fouls in the first five minutes of the game.
Cunningham finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
Esmery Martinez (10 points and seven rebounds) and Skylar Jones (10 points) also scored in double figures.
The Wildcats’ 13 shots made from 3-point range is a season-high. They finished 13 of 20 from beyond the arc.
This occurred after Arizona was 7 of 8 from 3-point range against Texas.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time on shooting and it’s paying off,” Barnes said. “Because we’re sharing the ball offensively that starts with Kailyn. Kailyn did a much better job distributing the ball, not forcing, setting her teammates up … I thought that she was the one who started that and then we got wide open 3’s, which are high-percentage shots, uncontested, and we hit them.”
When Arizona trailed 10-8 with 4:53 left in the first quarter, Gilbert took over.
She scored six points on strong drives to the basket and Pueyo knocked down a 3-pointer in a 9-0 run that gave the Wildcats a 17-10 lead.
Arizona made it a rout when it outscored Arizona State 19-2 to open the second quarter.
Exhibiting its balance throughout, Arizona had six different players score in that 19-2 stretch, led by Jones’ eight points behind two 3-pointers.
Four players each had two assists in the second quarter — Gilbert, Martinez, Courtney Blakely and Isis Beh.
“This is the distribution we need, but I’m telling you, it starts with Kailyn,” Barnes said. “When Kailyn is like that, we’re gonna play our best because then it’s contagious. Courtney comes out and makes shots. Skylar makes shots. And then we’re playing unselfish. We didn’t force a lot of shots.”
Arizona’s defense was also effective limiting Arizona State to 30.6 percent shooting from the field, including 21.4 percent from 3-point range.
The Wildcats outrebounded the Sun Devils 43-32 and tallied 42 points in the paint to go with their torrid shooting from beyond the arc.
Arizona’s bench also scored 30 points (led by Sali Kourouma’s eight points, five rebounds and three assists) compared to only eight points by all of Arizona State’s reserves.
Barnes, who went 8-0 against Arizona State when she played at Arizona from 1994-98, has won seven of her last nine games as a coach against the Sun Devils.
She now has two full days to prepare Arizona for No. 21 Gonzaga (11-2) at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix.
“I think we’re playing good basketball right now,” Barnes said. “Overall, there was some bad moments, but I thought overall, we’re playing pretty good and feeling good. I think we’re playing good as a team. I think that’s the most important thing.
“It is a quick turnaround (against Gonzaga). It’s a couple of days from now. I think we’re ready to go and this is the momentum I want going into Christmas.”
The game is part of the Jerry Colangelo Classic that also features Arizona’s men’s team playing Alabama at 9 p.m. on Wednesday at the Footprint Center.
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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.