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Freshmen growing up quickly

Jacob Konst/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Freshman forward Whitney Fields is one of two first-year players to see time on the court this season for the Arizona women's basketball team. Fields averages 6.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds in 16.5 minutes.
By Michael Schwartz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, December 1, 2005
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Njonkou, O'Neal likely out for rest of fall semester

Because the Arizona women's basketball team plans on playing a fast-paced style this season that features constant full-court pressure, its bench should play an important role in keeping the starters fresh and wearing out the opposition.

That burden will rest largely on the four members of the team's freshman class, all of whom will play important supporting roles for Arizona, said Wildcats head coach Joan Bonvicini.

"We're going to do a number of things differently this year, but one of them is normally I play about an eight-player rotation, but because we're a lot quicker and because we're going to try to extend the court defensively, we're going to play nine or 10 a game," she said. "That's why all these kids will play."

Various issues have taken two of the freshmen away from the court, leaving them sidelined indefinitely.

Freshman center Amina Njonkou, who started the team's Red-Blue Game on Nov. 1 and was supposed to take the starting spot of Shawntinice Polk, who died Sept. 26, will likely miss Arizona's nonconference schedule with a stress fracture in her right foot.

Bonvicini said Njonkou can walk in her boot and is expected back later this month.

Freshman point guard Malia O'Neal, a two-time Seattle Times State Player of the Year, still needs to be cleared by the NCAA after failing to meet entrance requirements. Until she's ruled eligible, she cannot practice or play with the team.

That puts more pressure on the other two newcomers, especially 6-foot-1 freshman forward Whitney Fields, the tallest healthy Wildcat, and freshman guard Kelsey Burns.

"(Fields is) a great athlete, (an) excellent rebounder still working on her defense," Bonvicini said. "She just plays very, very hard. I think the biggest thing she's learning is how to let the game come to her."

While playing the power forward and center spots, Fields said she needs to get accustomed to the college game, which is much different from her high school playing days in Miami.

"In high school, everything was so easy for me," Fields said. "Coming out here, you've got to really work hard. In high school, on defense, you get a break. You don't have to run that hard when you're the star player."

Thus far Fields has been the team's most productive freshman, as she's second on the team with 6.5 rebounds per game in just 16.5 minutes. She's also averaging 6.5 points on 57.9 percent shooting.

While Fields does not have the height to battle giants in the paint, her athleticism could pose problems for slower post players, as long as she boxes them out.

"That's something we practice every day, to box out, because we don't have the height," Fields said. "The thing is, we're strong. We've got to really push the ball because those big girls can't run as fast as us."

While Njonkou was slated to start at center before her injury, she said she had no thoughts of replacing the woman formerly occupying that spot.

"Nobody can fill Polk's shoes," Njonkou said.

Njonkou, Arizona's first African-born player, who played for the Cameroon Junior National Team, will play a prominent role once she returns, Bonvicini said.

She has already played a part in the team's future, helping recruit class of 2006 signees 6-foot-7 Beatrice and 6-foot-6 Suzanne Bofia, who also hail from Cameroon.

Burns, an all-around athlete who starred in swimming and track in high school, adds depth to an already loaded backcourt that needs her 3-point shooting to create space for the other guards to penetrate.

However, Bonvicini said, other parts of Burns' game need to improve as she makes the transition to college.

"The biggest thing she needs to work on is still her defense," she said. "Like a lot of the freshmen, it's defense and just the physical nature of the game. She's not used to being banged on so much, but she's good."

She has not made much of an impact thus far, averaging only 1 point per game on 1-of-14 shooting.

Bonvicini said she could not comment on O'Neal, who signed in April to complete the Wildcats' class, until the NCAA decides her status.

In an April press release on after O'Neal's signing, Bonvicini said that she is the final piece of a great class.

"Malia is a consummate point guard - a leader on the court who will make everyone around her better," Bonvicini said in the release. "She will have an immediate impact on our team. Because of her heart, hustle and amazing passing and ball-handling abilities, she will be an instant fan favorite."

This freshmen class seems to have it all: an athletic forward, a physical center, a true point guard and a 3-point bomber.

Once Njonkou and O'Neal return to the court, they could provide the bodies Arizona needs to keep everybody fresh in its fast-paced attack.

For now, it's up to Fields and Burns to provide quality depth as they get acclimated to the college game.

"Both these kids will come off the bench, and I think what's going to happen with them, as they get more confident and more experienced, (is) their minutes will go up," Bonvicini said.

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