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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    ‘Heart and soul’ gave it all

    Arizona guard Ashley Whisonant tosses the ball over Washington State forward Heather Molzen in a 67-54 loss on Feb. 23 in McKale Center. Whisonant has been a vital cog for the UA womens basketball team this year.
    Arizona guard Ashley Whisonant tosses the ball over Washington State forward Heather Molzen in a 67-54 loss on Feb. 23 in McKale Center. Whisonant has been a vital cog for the UA women’s basketball team this year.

    She’s the heart and soul of the Arizona women’s basketball team – a term UA head coach Joan Bonvicini uses quite frequently when describing her relentless senior leader, Ashley Whisonant.

    It’s a simple term that honors the always-smiling guard amid this complex season’s only constant and reliable performer.

    On paper, it’s obvious how crucial Whisonant’s presence is on the court, as Arizona’s leader in games started (all 29), minutes (37.3 average), assists (4.9 per game), steals (1.8 per game) and points (15.4 per game). Outside of Tucson, the Bowie, Md., native sits third in the Pacific 10 Conference in scoring average, first in assists per game and first in minutes per game.

    Those numbers, however, could never pay justice in reflecting the fight and drive Whisonant powerfully showed throughout the entire season.

    Although leading the team on the box score doesn’t always equate to embracing a team leadership role in the locker room, Whisonant’s case certainly covers both ends of the “”Top ‘Cat”” spectrum – as evidenced by the amount of praise Bonvicini dishes out after almost every game.

    “”Ashley Whisonant played her heart out,”” Bonvicini said after the Feb. 21 loss to Washington.

    “”Ashley is the heart and soul of this team,”” Bonvicini said before the Feb. 14 loss to Stanford. “”When she’s on defensively, that’s when she really smiles a lot. She’s the best on-ball defender I’ve ever coached.””

    Said Washington State head coach June Daugherty: “”She’s a complete player, she’s had an amazing career.””

    Whisonant’s roller-coaster venture began in 2005 with a 20-12 record – the last time Arizona reached the NCAA Tournament. But the beginning of Whisonant’s sophomore season marked the loss of Arizona’s best player in women’s basketball program history, Shawntinice Polk.

    Never recovering as a program, the Arizona women’s basketball team endured the next three years going 29-62. Throughout that period, though, Whisonant quietly emerged in the school record book by climbing up to fifth all-time in scoring (1,451 points), ninth in assists (406) and eighth in minutes played (3,418).

    This season took on a new sense of endurance, when an injury-plagued short roster forced Whisonant’s tired legs to sit out from select practice plays, in an effort to maintain almost all 40 minutes every game.

    Such fatigue can be attributed to games like Jan. 3 at Oregon State – arguably one of the most bizarre games in school history that also revealed “”A-Dub’s”” most notable performance.

    Pure adrenaline fueled the infamous dual in Corvallis, Ore., that eventually brought a double-overtime loss on paper. But those who saw the game, Bonvicini said, witnessed history. Whisonant led a crippled team of six available players to score a career-high 34 points – one shy of the school record – in 48 minutes before fouling out.

    Four players eventually fouled out, leaving Arizona with two passionate players on the court as a true test of endurance – quite simply, a case of “”bearing down”” at its finest hour. It’s fitting that Arizona begins its Pac-10 Tournament on Friday against Oregon State.

    But despite Whisonant’s tear in recent Pac-10 Tournament history – averaging 18.8 ppg in her last four tournament games – the rematch in San Jose, Calif., isn’t about the senior.

    “”I think I’m as important as any other person,”” Whisonant said. “”I love my teammates and any time we do something good, or anything, I’m happy. I’m going to continue to keep a smile on my face.””

    When asked about Bonvicini’s “”heart and soul of the team”” comments, Whisonant continued to shy from the limelight.

    “”I guess I’m important,”” said Whisonant with a laugh. “”It means a lot to hear her say that.””

    When asked about her vitality to the team, Whisonant always defers and refocuses the question on teamwork as a whole. Such focus on the team reflects so drastically on the team, that forward Amina Njonkou didn’t think Whisonant even realized the Washington series marked her final two home games at McKale Center.

    “”She doesn’t really care about (thinking about herself),”” Njonkou said. “”You never hear her talking about (that).””

    The crushing loss to Washington State on Senior Night on Feb. 23 took a toll on Whisonant, evident in her post-game body language. While the rest of the Wildcats walked away from a somber half-court huddle after the game, Whisonant remained standing alone, holding up her jersey over a misty-eyed face.

    She stood alone, symbolic, like her immense efforts as this season’s only senior leader.

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