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Underclassmen underdogs: Guards play prominent role this year

Claire C. Laurence/Arizona Daily Wildcat
The Wildcats and head coach Joan Bonvicini leave the court after their 93-73 victory over Cal Poly Pomona on Nov. 6 in McKale Center. Natalie Jones (23), the Wildcats' captain this season, is the team's leading returning scorer and will anchor Arizona's deep backcourt.
By Lindsey Frazier
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, November 17, 2005
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The Arizona women's basketball team knew it was going to have to fill the shoes of one legend at the end of the 2004 season but never imagined it would have to occupy two vacancies.

But with the departure of point guard Dee-Dee Wheeler, who used her final year of eligibility last season, and the sudden death of senior center Shawntinice Polk on Sept. 26, the Wildcats had significant holes in their roster before the season ever began.

Freshman center Amina Njonkou, a 6-foot-1 native of Cameroon, Africa, will be the starting center and is expected to fill the void left by the 6-foot-5 Polk.

Njonkou is out for four to eight weeks, however, after suffering a stress fracture in her foot. She practiced with the team as late as Nov. 4, but had to have a screw surgically inserted into her foot on Nov. 7.

Last season at West Memphis (Ark.) High School, Njonkou averaged 18 points, nine rebounds, five steals and three assists per game.

"She's incredibly strong and extremely versatile," said Arizona head coach Joan Bonvicini. "Normally, I'd say her normal position is a 4, which would then become a wing sometimes, but because Polkey isn't here she will play (in the) post quite a bit.

"The biggest thing (is) she's about 6-foot, 6-foot-1, but she plays bigger because of how physical and strong she is."

Joining Njonkou down low will be sophomore forward Ché Oh, who started two games last season. Senior forward Anna Chappell may also see some playing time.

"This year, coming into the season, I had prepared to be able to step up and play more," Chappell said. "I feel that this year, I'll just continue that and just do whatever I can on the court for my team, whether I start or not."

Arizona will also be without junior forward-center Shannon Hobson, who is using a medical redshirt after undergoing offseason back surgery.

Season Overview

2005 Record: 20-12
(11-7 Pac-10)
Pac-10 Finish: Fifth

Key Games – 2005-06 Season

vs. No. 22 Utah: Nov. 26
@ No. 14 Maryland: Dec. 11
@ No. 11 Stanford: Jan. 19
vs. No. 24 USC: Feb. 2
@ No. 20 ASU: Feb. 25

Despite the addition of Njonkou, the Wildcats lack the height in the post that they had in previous years.

"We're not very tall," Bonvicini said. "When you miss a player who is 6-foot-5, I think it is a question mark. We are using that as a rallying point on this team."

The Wildcats will be bolstered with added depth at the guard positions, as the team has eight potential backcourt players at its disposal.

Sophomore guard Ashley Whisonant will most likely run the point but will be challenged by Tucson native Jessica Arnold, senior Natalie Jones and freshman Malia O'Neal, who is awaiting word from the NCAA regarding her academic eligibility for the fall semester.

Last season, Whisonant averaged seven points per game as a shooting guard in just more than 20 minutes a contest.

"It's a new role for me because I hardly played point guard at all last year," she said. "It's kind of different for me but it's something I want to do. I learned a lot from Dee-Dee. Dee-Dee always played hard. I had to pick up some of her point-guard techniques."

Although they have some experience at point guard, Jones and Arnold will be used primarily as shooting guards, while the 5-foot-10 Jones also has the potential to be a small forward.

"I'll be swinging this year, playing all three positions - the 1, 2 and 3 because 2 and 3 are kind of the same," she said. "My responsibilities this year are a lot more."

In addition, the Anchorage, Alaska, native said she has taken on a more vocal leadership role to begin her senior campaign.

"I've always been the one that's played with a lot of great players and always could be in the back, but now I have to lead this team," said Jones, who was the only Wildcat to start all 32 games last year while averaging 9.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. "All three years combined, I've had to play a lot different. I'm actually trying to be vocal."

A healthy Arnold, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery, will be the probable starting shooting guard.

"This time, (the shoulder) is staying in place," said Arnold, who suffered similar injuries during her high school career at Palo Verde. "It's going to be there for a long time now."

"I've never played healthy," she added. "I don't even know what that feels like."

Junior guard Joy Hollingsworth will also compete for a starting job at shooting guard.

Hollingsworth, who redshirted last season after transferring from San Francisco at the end of her sophomore year, was named the West Coast Conference Freshman Player of the Year for 2002-03 and averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game with the Dons.

Arizona was picked to finish seventh in the Pacific 10 Conference in the preseason Pac-10 media poll. The conference sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament last season and is ranked as the third-toughest conference in the nation by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association.

After losing key players prior to the season and having a poor performance in last season's Pac-10 Tournament - Arizona lost in the first round to Southern California - Bonvicini said it was difficult for other conference coaches to know where to place Arizona.

"That's the lowest we've been in the preseason in a long time," she said. "Obviously, a lot of their question marks were because Polkey is not here and will not be playing."

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