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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona WBB 2023-2024 season recap

The+Arizona+womens+basketball+team+continues+the+tradition+of+banging+on+the+drum+before+a+game+against+Loyola+Marymount+University+on+Sunday%2C+Nov.+12%2C+in+McKale+Center.
Celeste Lizarraga
The Arizona women’s basketball team continues the tradition of banging on the drum before a game against Loyola Marymount University on Sunday, Nov. 12, in McKale Center.

The Arizona women’s basketball team concluded its 2023-2024 season with an 18-16 record and an 8-10 record in conference play. The Wildcats finished seventh in the Pac-12 standings, the highest among the unranked teams in the Pac-12. With head coach Adia Barnes completing her eighth season leading the team, the Wildcats ended their season in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Syracuse University on Saturday, March 23, where they fell 74-69 to the Orange.

However, let’s now take a look at how the Wildcats got here.

Arizona’s original plan was to enter the season with 12 active players on the roster. The returning players included five players from last year’s team: fifth-year forward Esmery Martinez, fifth-year guard Helena Pueyo, sophomore guard Kailyn Gilbert, sophomore forward Maya Nnaji and freshman forward Montaya Dew. Then, Barnes added freshman Jada Williams, Breya Cunningham, Skylar Jones and Middle Tennessee State University transfer Courtney Blakely, along with fellow transfers Isis Beh and Salimatou Kourouma, as well as former Arizona track and field thrower Erin Tack to round out the team.

However, on Friday, August 11, 2023, the team announced that Dew would be out the entire season due to her undergoing surgery. Consequently, the Wildcats entered the season with 11 active scholarship players on the roster.

Regular season recap:

Arizona started its season going 7-0 and then faced its first loss against its first ranked opponent, the No. 23 University of Mississippi on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, with the Wildcats falling 56-47. In Arizona’s next seven games, the Wildcats went 4-3. Their best win in this stretch came against ASU on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, when Arizona defeated ASU 91-52. It was a dominant team performance that saw all nine Wildcats who played in the game score and have at least one assist and a rebound. Cunningham also tied her career-high blocks with five in this game. Additionally, the Wildcats made 13 3-pointers, which tied for the second-most in a single game in program history. The team totaled 24 assists on 34 baskets, which was the most assists in a game this season.

During this stretch, Arizona lost another player on the active roster, Nnaji, who announced on X on Dec. 15, 2023, that she would be stepping away from the team and focusing on her dream of becoming a physician. This left the Wildcats with nine remaining scholarship players on the roster. 

Up to this point in the season, Arizona had played three ranked opponents and was 0-3 against them. They headed into conference play with an 11-4 record.

In the Wildcats’ first six conference games, they went 1-5, with two of these games coming against ranked opponents, which Arizona lost. Despite the final results not favoring the Wildcats, they displayed extremely competitive basketball during this span. Four out of five of the losses suffered were by 3 points or fewer. 

Their worst loss in the stretch came against Washington State University on Sunday, Jan. 21, when the Cougars rolled over the Wildcats 78-57. In the game, Martinez had her fourth double-double of the season, along with tying her career-high in blocks with three on the day, but besides her impressive performance, the overall team did not perform at its best, resulting in a 21-point victory for Washington State.

At this point, the Wildcats were 12-7 on the season with 11 more conference games to play. During this stretch, Arizona went 6-5. Gilbert, their leading scorer, missed three games following the game against Washington State due to being in concussion protocol following an injury suffered in practice, according to Barnes. When Gilbert made her return, she saw limited minutes until Feb. 25 after Arizona had swept No. 3 Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Barnes said that sometimes there’s “addition by subtraction.” Then went on to speak about how incredible the team’s chemistry and cohesiveness was at that time of the season, and although Gilbert was not directly mentioned, it was pretty clear this statement was referencing her.

Then, on Monday, Feb. 26, it became official once Barnes went on Wildcats Radio of 1290 AM on DK with the Sports Tip to speak with David Kelly and let him know that Gilbert was no longer with the program. Following Gilbert’s departure, the team held tryouts to find a replacement for her and were able to pick up Brooklyn Rhodes from St. Louis, Missouri.

Despite all of this happening, Arizona was able to play some of its best basketball during the final stretch of the season, which included the Wildcats not only defeating a top-three team in the country but also finishing their regular season going 4-2.  They also were able to make it into the Pac-12 Tournament as the No. 7 seed, after playing 32 regular-season games, finishing 2-9 against ranked opponents, but also going 16-5 against all other teams. With the 11 ranked games played in the regular season also being the most in program history and eight of those games coming against top 10 teams, the Wildcats’ attention was toward making a run in the Pac-12 Tournament and possibly even further as the NCAA Tournament was on the horizon.

Postseason recap:

Arizona began the Pac-12 Tournament as the No. 7 seed and faced off against the No. 10 seed University of Washington in the tournament’s opening round on Wednesday, March 6. The duo of fifth-year players, Pueyo and Martinez, led the way for the Wildcats with each of their 14-point performances in their opening round 58-50 victory over the Huskies. Next, Arizona faced off against the No. 5 seed USC in the quarterfinals on Thursday, March 7, and gave the eventual Pac-12 champions all they could handle. Despite falling 65-62, Pueyo showed out once again with a game-high 19 points and made a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 63-60 in the final seconds, but Arizona was unable to overcome the Trojans, and its conference tournament ended there. However, a potential NCAA Tournament appearance remained in play, but it was going to be a close call if the Wildcats would make it or not, but it was all going to come down to whatever the committee decided on Selection Sunday, March 17.

Ten days later, Arizona found out that it was selected as one of the final teams to participate in this year’s NCAA Tournament. This was the Wildcats’ fourth consecutive bid to the tournament and 11th in program history. Before the No. 11 seed Wildcats could officially enter the first round of the tournament, they would first have to play in a play-in game against fellow No. 11 seed Auburn University on Thursday, March 21.

In their play-in game against the Tigers on Thursday, March 21, once again, Pueyo and Martinez came up clutch down the stretch, with Pueyo scoring 14 of her 16 points in the second half, and Arizona opened the second half on an 8-2 run, with 3-pointers from both players. Martinez made all five of her shots to score her 14 points. However, the player that led the way to Arizona’s 69-59 win this time was Williams, with a game-high 17 points in her first-ever tournament game, keeping the Wildcats dancing.

Arizona, now in the Round of 64, was set to face off against No. 6 Syracuse on Saturday, March 23. The Wildcats led by nine at the end of the first half, but even with the Orange having their best player slightly banged up, Dyaisha Fair still managed to put forth a masterclass performance and finished with 32 points, six steals, and four assists, which was too much for Arizona to overcome. Even with Jones scoring a career-high 24 points on the day, along with Pueyo and Williams adding in 14 points apiece, down the stretch of the game, Fair was simply too much for the Wildcats to match, and Arizona’s hopes of making a deep run in the tournament would disappointingly come to an abrupt ending with their 74-69 defeat to Syracuse.

Looking ahead: 

Arizona’s season is now officially at its conclusion, and it has been one to remember, with the team overcoming adversity at every point of its season and coming in various forms. However, despite it all, the Wildcats competed in arguably the toughest basketball conference in the country and were able to hang with and even beat some of the best teams in the nation, although the final destination was not where they would have liked. Nonetheless, the journey was something these players can treasure for the rest of their lives, especially in the case of Martinez and Pueyo, who have both been cornerstones of this team, graduating this May

Even with that being the case, this team is brimming with young and hungry talent that Barnes has found and has already developed into fine players that will be vital pieces to the future success of this program for years to come.


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