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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Wildcats ready to rebound from lost season

    Michael Schwartz
    Michael Schwartz

    Throughout Arizona head coach Joan Bonvicini’s Wildcat coaching career, she has won many big games.

    There have been wins over conference power Stanford, the longest home court winning streak in the nation, and last year’s first round NCAA tournament win over Oklahoma, which was supposed to be the victory that got the Arizona program over the hump and propelled them deeper in the tournament.

    Many coaches of her ilk would be disappointed to even be in the play-in round of the Pacific 10 Conference Tournament, but Bonvicini thought differently about Arizona’s 64-57 win over Oregon Friday.

    “”It was as important a win as we’ve had in this program,”” she said.

    It’s been that kind of year for the Arizona women’s basketball team.

    The original plan was for this squad to make a deep NCAA tournament run with senior center Shawntinice Polk, arguably the best player in school history, senior guard Natalie Jones, junior transfer guard Joy Hollingsworth and a slew of young, talented players ready to take the next step.

    With McKale Center hosting the first two rounds of the tournament, the Sweet 16 seemed to be a realistic goal for this year’s Wildcats.

    But of course nothing went as planned for the 2005-06 Wildcats.

    It all started Sept. 26 on a day that nobody thought could ever happen, when the team’s charismatic leader, Polk, died suddenly at the age of 22.

    At that point everything changed. Polk was supposed to be the centerpiece of the offense, a dominant post presence who could open driving lanes for her teammates and free them for jump shots by commanding constant double teams.

    Defensively, her impact was felt just the same, as she was Arizona’s career leader in rebounding average and blocked shots.

    “”When ‘Polkey’ passed away, roles changed,”” Bonvicini said. “”A lot of kids who wouldn’t have had to play have never been in those roles before.””

    No matter how dominant Polk would have been, that doesn’t even come close to describing the void her loss left in the locker room. Polk was the unquestioned leader, always there to help her teammates along and provide support.

    Before the year started Bonvicini realized that she had to change the team’s game plan and said she wanted to rely on depth, using her squad’s athleticism to create turnovers and mask the lack of a dominant post presence.

    “”Even with Polkey not there, this was before (freshman forward) Amina (Njonkou) went out, I thought we still had a lot of depth and could press, and we did,”” Bonvicini said. “”Then what happened? Injuries happened.””

    When injuries hit, the Wildcats were stripped of their depth, as the following players missed all or part of the season:

    ? Redshirting junior center Shannon Hobson (back surgery) – 30 games.

    ? Njonkou (fractured foot) – 22.

    ? Junior guard Linda Pace (torn meniscus) – 19.

    ? Sophomore forward Che Oh (concussions) – 10.

    ? Sophomore guard Jessica Arnold (concussion) – three.

    ? Freshman guard Malia O’Neal (concussion) – one (seven for academics).

    In fact, during Arizona’s Feb. 4 loss to UCLA, it could be debated who would win a game between the injured women on the bench at full strength, including Oh, Pace, Arnold, Hobson, Njonkou and later O’Neal when she got hurt in that game, and the Wildcats on the floor.

    Even with Polkey’s death, the ever-optimistic Bonvicini still expected everything she would out of a typical Arizona squad in the win department.

    “”It’s been definitely frustrating that we couldn’t win more, and I found for myself that initially we were a program that hasn’t lost a lot, and we were losing,”” she said. “”I found myself getting frustrated with the team and myself, and I realized I wasn’t helping anyone, so I had to change my coaching style.””

    Bonvicini became a more patient coach, focusing more on her players than the win-loss record.

    By the end of the conference season, the Wildcats definitely took their lumps, finishing 8-22 and getting pounded by more than 20 points seven times. Payback will surely be on the agenda next year for a Bonvicini-coached squad that loses 20 games as often as the Arizona men’s basketball team is on the bubble.

    With incoming freshman posts Suzanne and Beatrice Bofia, the Wildcats will no longer be small, and with some luck in the injury department they may actually have fantastic depth. After all, somebody had to play when half the squad was out with injuries.

    In the end Arizona endured it all together, becoming as close a team as you will ever see.

    “”Success is measured in a lot of different ways, and one way is by the number of wins or postseason,”” Bonvicini said. “”Throughout my career, that’s how I’ve measured success, but I think this season I’d like to measure it in a lot of different ways. Success wasn’t necessarily in our wins and losses.””

    Their record won’t show it, but by sticking together, the Wildcats had a winning season.

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