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Arizona WBB gets a facelift through the transfer portal and 2023 freshmen

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Nathanial Stenchever

Head coach Adia Barnes of the Arizona women’s basketball team tries to think of a way to stop the high-powered University of North Carolina offense on March 21 in McKale Center. This unfortunately would be the game that would drop the Wildcats out of the Women’s Tournament as they would lose 63-45.

After the conclusion of the 2022-23 season, head coach Adia Barnes saw a crowd of stars and role players move onto different chapters. For a while, it spelled bad news for the Wildcat faithful, but another exciting offseason creates room for optimism in the 2023-24 season.

Key Losses
Jade Loville, Shaina Pellington and Cate Reese were three exceptional Wildcat starters who all ran out of eligibility after last season.

Loville and Reese both declared for the 2023 WNBA draft, but only Loville was drafted. She was taken in the third round by the Seattle Storm with the final of their four picks. Loville has appeared in just one game, and it was back on May 8th when the Storm played on the road against the Phoenix Mercury. She posted seven minutes with 4 points, one rebound and one steal to go with the personal foul she picked up.

Reese went undrafted and signed with the Gold Coast Rollers of the NBL1 in Australia. The timing of the NBL1 season allows Reese to fight for a WNBA roster spot in the fall and winter. In 11 games for the Rollers, Reese averaged 22.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. On July 2, she signed with the Euroleague’s Kangoeroes Mechelen, a professional team based out of Belgium, whose season will start in October.

The transfer portal also decimated the Wildcat bench, with Madison Conner, Paris Clark, Lemyah Hylton, Lauren Ware and Lauren Fields all finding new homes. Two players ended up in the Big-12, with Conner landing at TCU and Fields enrolling at West Virginia University. Two more landed in the ACC, with Clark ending up at the University of Virginia and Hylton landing in Florida to attend the University of Miami. Ware now plays for Texas A&M University and will see significant competition for playing time in the SEC.

Two other players announced intentions to play elsewhere but have shown no movement. Rising sophomore Kailyn Gilbert entered her name into the transfer portal but has yet to announce an update. As of June, she is still on the 2023-24 roster. Starter and rising fifth-year senior Esmery Martinez announced her intentions to enter the 2023 WNBA draft after the 2022-23 season. However, she removed her name from the draft pool shortly thereafter and is presumed to return for the 2023-24 season.

Key Additions
Four top-100 ranked freshmen and four transfer portal pickups have given the Wildcats a new look in their starting rotation and bench.

Montaya Dew, the No. 8-ranked prospect in the 2023 class, decided to forego her final semester of high school and joined the Wildcats back in January for offseason training. The 6-foot-2 forward from Las Vegas was the first to commit from this class of freshmen and has been likened to former Wildcat Sam Thomas by Barnes.

The two other top-25 prospects joining the Wildcats are No. 14-ranked Breya Cunningham and No. 21st-ranked Jada Williams, teammates from La Jolla Country Day School.
Cunningham, a 6-foot-4 forward, was named a McDonald’s All-American and a member of the inaugural Nike Hoops Summit team in 2023. She earned first-team All-Conference, All-City and All-State honors in each of her four years in high school.

Williams, who initially committed to UCLA, switched her commitment to Arizona on August 1, 2022. She has won two gold medals in the 2021 FIBA Americas U16 Championship and the 2022 FIBA Americas U17 World Cup. Alongside Cunningham, she was named a McDonald’s All-American and a member of the Nike Hoops Summit team last season. She also showcased exceptional leadership as team captain, earning MVP or co-MVP honors in each of her four high school years.

The fourth unnamed freshman, Skylar Jones from Chicago, is the No. 96-ranked prospect in the 2023 class, completing a Wildcat freshman class composed entirely of top-100 high school prospects. Arizona was the first school to reach out to the 6-foot tall wing after she decommitted from the University of Missouri. She committed to the Wildcats on Monday, May 15.

The most notable transfer portal acquisitions are former University of Arkansas at Little Rock forward Sali Kourouma and former junior college standout Fanta Gassama from South Georgia Technical College.

Kourouma earned All-Sun Belt Conference Second Team honors in her first season at Little Rock after transferring from Grayson College, a Texas junior college. She led the team with 18.4 points per game and 150 field goals in 22 games with 18 starts. Playing an average of 31.3 minutes per game, she solidified her spot with a prestigious program after two transfers, and this poses to be her last.

Gassama, listed as a forward on the Arizona roster, played center at SGTC. In 32 games for the Lady Jets, she started 23 games, averaging 20 minutes per game. Shooting at a 54% clip, she led the conference in field goal percentage. Gassama averaged a double-double of 10 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, with her rebounding leading the conference. The Wildcats secured this junior college standout despite competition from the University of Cincinnati amidst a coaching change.

The other transfer portal additions include former Middle Tennessee State University guard Courtney Blakely and former West Virginia University forward Isis Beh.

Blakely shared point guard responsibilities with Conference USA Player of the Year candidate Savannah Wheeler, appearing in 31 games with 10 starts. Despite stiff competition for playing time, Blakely maintained averages of 7.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game, shooting 42.8% from the field.

Beh, now at her fourth school, previously spent a season at the University of Nevada Las Vegas before transferring to Salt Lake City Community College and subsequently West Virginia for the past two years. Last season, she appeared in 27 games, averaging 10.1 minutes, 3.1 points and 2.1 rebounds per game.


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