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#20 Gonzaga WBB Heads South for a Date with the Arizona Wildcats

The team will be looking to bring some sunshine home in this “neutral” game

The Women will be travelling with their new #20 ranking in the AP poll to Phoenix as they take on the Arizona Wildcats in the Jerry Colangelo Hall of Fame Classic tomorrow. This will be the first ever matchup between these universities and thankfully the game will be shown on ESPN+, instead of the dreaded Pac-12 Network, at 4:30pm EST.

Heading into this season, Arizona was predicted to finish 7th in their conference after losing four of their top five scorers including the transfer of Madison Connors who is lighting it up at TCU this year with 22.9 ppg on 43% shooting (notably 44.9% from deep on 11 attempts per game). However, achieving a preseason rank of 7th in the Pac-12 means more than arguably any other conference because as it stands, the division still has six teams ranked and another team, WSU, sitting just three spots back in the most recent polls. This should come as no surprise given that Arizona was national runners-up just two years ago where they lost to Stanford by a single point and have made it to the second-round of the Tournament every year since. So even as the Wildcats usher in a new generation of players, no one should have expected this to be an easy matchup as the season kicked-off.

One player that won’t need bringing up to speed is the graduate senior, Esmery Martinez. The 6’2” senior transferred from West Virginia after the completion of the 20-21 season and posed 10.5 points (50.6% overall and 33.3% from three), 8.6 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game in her first year for the Wildcats. This performance earned her a Preseason Pac-12 All Conference Team selection, the only such honor bestowed upon her team. She’s putting up similar scoring numbers this year with 10.6 points, which qualifies for second-best on her team, although her three point shooting has dropped to 18.5% on 2.5 attempts per game which has dropped her overall field goal percentage to just 46.5% while her rebounding has dropped to a career low at just under 6 per game.

One reason for Esmery’s drop in rebounds could be the arrival of 6’4” freshman Breya Cunningham. The La Jolla Country Day School product, a small private school in San Diego that freshman guard Jada Williams also graduated from, was a McDonalds All American in her senior year and 14th ranked recruit in the country coming out of high school. She plays as a true big down low using her size to carve out space for easy baskets while also jumping out to operate in the pick and roll before diving back into the pain. She’s currently averaging 8.7 points on 65.2% shooting, 6 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game in just 19 minutes and is coming off three double-digit scoring performances so she may be getting used to the speed of college ball, which could be scary for the Zags. Despite her role in the paint, she’s not drawing a lot of fouls, which may actually be to her team’s benefit because she’s shooting an atrocious 40% from the free throw line.

The leading scorer for the Cats at this stage in the season is the sophomore guard Kailyn Gilbert. Standing at 5’8” and hailing from Florida, Kailyn has thrived with a larger role this season (22-23: 10.6 mpg / 23-24: 27.6 mpg) as she’s averaging 14.7 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.4 steals per game on the season. Interesting tidbit, she’s actually shooting at a worse percentage from inside the arc (40.8% on 9.4 FGA) than from outside of it (46.9% on 2.4 3FGA). In her last four games, Kailyn has been playing above her season stat line as she’s posting 16 points, 7.8 rebound, 3 assists, and 1.8 steals to go along with her first career double-double against a Northern Arizona squad that has defeated USF, Pacific, and Portland this season. Look for her to be a threat with the ball in her hands.

Arizona will be without their third leading scorer, sophomore forward Maya Nnaji, as it was announced before the Texas game that she was stepping away from the team to “focus on academics” according to Coach Adia Barnes. The online publication, Tuscon.com, reports the Nnaji is enrolled in the “Accelerated Pathway to Medical Education program (APME) at Arizona and wants to become a doctor to help the children in her father’s home country of Nigeria, has been managing a heavy load of classes along with playing in a Power 5 women’s college basketball program.” While I’m certain the team misses her skillset on the court, I applaud her decision to think beyond this game and will actively root for her since I can first-hand attest to the grueling nature of the academic rigors involved in medical education.

While I expect to see Breya Cunningham to start this game against Gonzaga, the 5’11” forward from Mali, Sali Kouroumana, will likely see significant minutes on the floor as she was regularly playing 20 minutes even before Maya Nnaji stepped away from the team. Sali has had an interesting college career that saw her forced to start Grayson College, a community college in Texas, due to an ACL injury suffered in high school before moving to University of Arkansas at Little Rock for two years when she transferred for her senior year at Arizona. While at Little Rock, she earned two player of the year awards in both the Sun Belt and Ohio Valley Conference. In her first year as a Wildcat, she’s averaging 9 points (46.9% and 30% from three) and 3.8 rebounds per game. When doing some research on her, I found this article from 2022 that includes this video briefly documenting her relocation from Mali and highlighting the destruction of her childhood home.

Graduate senior guard, Helen Pueyo, may only average 5.8 points per game, but she’s leading her team in minutes, assists and steals with 31, 3.5 and 2.8 per game, respectively, while maintaining an assist/turnover ratio of 2.3. She may not look like a scoring threat from the statistics across her five year college career, but in the team’s Pac-12 opener against rival Arizona State, Pueyo scored the second-most of her career with 18 propelled by her 5-6 shooting from deep. Ignore her at your own risk Gonzaga.

As it stands, Arizona possesses an 8-3 record with high-quality loses against then-23rd ranking Ole Miss at a neutral site (56-47 in Houston at the Chancellor Classic), borderline ranked UNLV on the road (72-53), and #5 Texas at home (88-75).

When looking at those loses, it’s notable that turnovers were not their main issue as they currently average a whopping 17.8 per game. Instead, the issue looks to have been come down to two key areas: shooting and rebounding.

On the season, the Cats are averaging 50.4% from two (70th nationally) and 32.1% from three (154th nationally). In their three loses, the team shot a combined 53-131 (40.4%) from inside the arc. While Arizona managed to shoot well from deep against Texas, 7-8, against Ole Miss and UNLV, the team went for a combined 5-30 (16.7%). It is notable that the Wildcats had sub-40% shooting performances in wins against LMU and South Dakota, but if Gonzaga can disrupt their offensive flow, Arizona could be in for a tough game.

On first glance, Arizona’s 36.5 total rebounds per game looks bad, but then I remember that Gonzaga is averaging just 36.4. In fact, both teams have incredibly similar rebounding numbers on both ends of the court so neither team really carries any advantage in this area when looking at the pure numbers. That being said, Gonzaga has only lost the rebounding battle once this year, the overtime loss against Washington State, while Arizona has lost their battle four times, including their three loses (the only game they won while losing the glass was against LMU who shot 35% overall so dropping that game would have been criminal). To me, that means Gonzaga needs to win the rebounding margin to secure its best chance at leaving the godforsaken Sonoran desert with a win (sorry to all those hailing from Arizona, but ya’ll need to stop coming to San Diego for your vacations while wearing sweaters in the summer because it’s “cold” and messing up the roads with your terrible excuse for “driving”).

Another important factor will be the health of Kaylynne Truong as she’s dealing with a broken nose (I suspect given her mask but have not read anything specifically declaring this medical statement) and at the least, banged up after making friends with the stanchion at the end of last game. While I trust the rest of the team to do their part, Kaylynne’s read of the game and timely assists are always important to the team’s greater success and non moreso than when playing a quality Power 5 conference opponent in a game that essentially amounts to a road matchup.

So, where do you rate Gonzaga’s chances of winning? Where do you think the keys to victory lie? Do you also agree that no one should live in the Sonoran desert and are willing to ignore that my hometown depends on the Hoover Dam for its existence? Hit the comments below for the pregame and remember that this will serve as the comment section for the game thread.