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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Women aim to forget last season

    File photo/Arizona Daily Wildcat
    File photo/Arizona Daily Wildcat

    After a devastating season that was plagued with numerous injuries and the tragic death of one of the best athletes in school history, the Arizona women’s basketball team has been ready to start the new season since the day last season ended.

    Now after a nearly nine-month offseason, that interminable wait is finally over, and the team is ready to make some noise in the Pacific 10 Conference.

    “”We’re very excited this year, probably more than any time in a long time,”” UA head coach Joan Bonvicini said. “”More than anything, we’re looking for a fresh start.””

    The Wildcats return four of five total starters from last year, losing only the departed senior Natalie Jones, who along with this year’s senior guard Joy Hollingsworth started all 30 games.

    Hollingsworth led the team in scoring and rebounding last year. She has 1,020 career points, 431 of which came in a Wildcat uniform, as she spent her first two seasons at San Francisco.

    Junior guard Ashley Whisonant led the team in assists with 102 and averaged 13.7 points a game.

    “”We’re excited to play,”” Whisonant said. “”We want to see what we’ve got compared to other teams because I think we can beat anybody. We’re a good team, and we’ll show our confidence on the floor.””

    Despite the newfound depth and size of the Wildcats, they were still chosen to finish seventh in the Pac-10, a year after they finished 8-22, including a 3-15 conference record.

    “”I think we’re definitely expecting to get some more wins,”” Hollingsworth said.

    From 2003 to 2005, the team made three consecutive NCAA appearances, and in eight of the last 11 seasons, they have won at least 20 games.

    “”We’re not a program that’s used to losing,”” Bonvicini said. “”We’ve had I don’t know how many 20-plus-win seasons, we’ve been in the NCAAs now seven times. The hardest part after the season ended last year was to watch the NCAAs here. We hosted knowing or thinking we were going to be in it. That’s why they were here, and that was hard.””

    Bonvicini added that for the most part, she is confident about her new team, but she does have a few minor concerns, including the brutal schedule they will face, starting with the first road trip of the season to face last year’s national champion and this year’s preseason new No. 1 team, the Maryland Terapins.

    “”My concern is they haven’t played at this level yet,”” Bonvicini said. “”I’d take talent over experience any day, and they’re talented, so that’s good.””

    Another question mark the team faces is some players’ college inexperience. The Wildcats will have five players entering their first year at a Division I school, four of whom are two sets of identical twins.

    Centers Beatrice and Suzy Bofia are junior-college transfers from Illinois, but they originally hail from Yaounde, Cameroon, and both figure to be big in Arizona’s plans. The other set of twins, freshman forwards Rheya and Rhaya Neabors, will platoon from the bench throughout the season.

    “”I’ve been very impressed with the Neabors twins,”” Bonvicini said. “”They’ve done a very good job, and they’ve been well-coached defensively. They’re going to get playing time right away.””

    The sister who will probably receive the bulk of the playing time of the two is Rheya, who Bonvicini projected would be the first player off the bench after she finished last week’s exhibition game against Grand Canyon with 17 points (8-for-13) and 10 rebounds.

    The fifth piece of the off-season puzzle is freshman Marie McGee. Adding to the tragedy of Shawntinice Polk’s death last year, McGee was involved in a scuffle back home in New Mexico and was stabbed in her arm after she signed her letter of intent in the spring, leaving question of whether or not she would be able to fulfill her athletic scholarship.

    McGee has since recovered to the point that she is able to play, and she joins the Bofia and Neabors twin tandems in the new recruiting class to complete the overhaul from last season. The new-look team will certainly have more breathing room.

    “”This is as deep a team as probably I’ve coached in a long time,”” Bonvicini said. “”What that means is our practices every day are extremely competitive.

    “”I’m very, very pleased with our new players. I think our new players and freshmen will contribute immediately, and I see every returnee has improved tremendously.””

    The deep roster now has 14 players. Junior forward Ché Oh will miss the season as a medical redshirt, but Bonvicini said everyone else is healthy, with the exception of Beatrice Bofia, whose timetable for a return is uncertain after spraining her knee in the Red-Blue Game Nov. 1.

    Last year’s injury-depleted team virtually had no depth as the year went on. At one point during the season, Bonvicini was down to just six scholarship players,

    “”Our depth is big,”” she said. “”I’m not used to playing 14 people, and in a close game, we won’t, but we’re going to need it right away.””

    Another big reason the team has so much excitement going into the season is because of their new height factor. Last season, the team lacked size in the post and opponents exploited that weakness.

    This year, the additions of the Bofia twins is a major upgrade, and the Wildcats have six players above 6 feet tall.

    “”Size was something we didn’t have last year,”” guard Joy Hollingsworth said. “”Just that added depth will be very beneficial for us.

    “”It’s going to be nice to be able to throw to someone that’s 6-7 a lob in the air. It’s definitely going to force defenses to double-team. It gives us a lot. It gives (UA assistant) coach Todd (Holthaus) something to look at, because he’s now not the tallest person on the team anymore.””

    Said guard Ashley Whisonant: “”You can tell that the height definitely makes a difference. It’s like it really opens up a lot of things.””

    Whisonant and Hollingsworth are two of the most experienced starters on the roster and are two of the seven guards who will be rotated into games.

    The team will also welcome the return of another senior, guard Linda Pace, who is back after she had season-ending knee surgery last year. She is a three-year letter winner and is regarded as an experienced leader.

    Bonvicini forecasts that this upcoming season will be nothing like the last one. She hopes the team can stay healthy, but with the added depth, there is less cause for concern.

    Her main goal this year is to lead the Wildcats back into the NCAA Tournament, where they were absent in 2005.

    “”I’m sure our goals will change as the season goes on, but our final goal will never change,”” Bonvicini said. “”We want to be there, and we want to make a run. …We’re talented, we’re big, we have shooters, we have quickness, we have size and we have depth.

    “”Now let’s just put it together. We’re ready to beat some teams.””

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