By Michael Schwartz
Claire C. Laurence/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Sophomore guard Jessica Arnold scrambles for the ball after forcing a turnover during Arizona's 61-51 win over Chicago State on Sunday in McKale Center. Arnold and the Wildcats travel to take on No. 9 Maryland on Sunday.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, December 7, 2005
The Arizona women's basketball team jumps into the meat of its schedule this weekend as a three-game road trip precedes the start of conference play during winter break.
The Wildcats (4-2) play nine games during the break, beginning Sunday at No. 9 Maryland, a game that may be the team's toughest test of the season thus far.
Entering tonight's contest with Monmouth, the Terrapins (6-1) have scored more than 100 points in consecutive games and average 94 points per contest, outscoring opponents by 31.6 per game.
"It's going to be a great test for us," said Wildcats head coach Joan Bonvicini. "They have a very, very talented team that's still pretty young."
The game will be a homecoming for sophomore point guard Ashley Whisonant, fresh off earning Fiesta Bowl Classic MVP honors last weekend.
Whisonant, from nearby Bowie, Md., will play in front of her family for the first time as a college player.
"I'll play the same way, go out and play hard," she said. "I might be a little nervous."
Next, the Wildcats head to Fresno State Dec. 17 for what was supposed to be a homecoming for center Shawntinice Polk, who died Sept. 26, as Fresno State is near Polkey's hometown of Hanford, Calif.
Bonvicini said the team plans to have a get-together with people from the Hanford community after the game and visit a mural put up for Polkey in a recreation center she used to frequent growing up.
Besides the Jan. 3 game hosting Wisconsin-Green Bay, the Wildcats wrap up their nonconference schedule Dec. 21 at UC-Santa Barbara.
"I believe our preseason schedule will definitely help," Bonvicini said. "Playing Maryland and going on the road to Fresno and Santa Barbara will help, too, playing in a hostile environment."
Arizona opens its Pacific 10 Conference schedule with a rivalry game Dec. 22 against No. 15 ASU in McKale Center.
While Bonvicini said she would like to play the rivalry game while school is in session so more students attend, she said that's just the way the schedule works itself out.
"We'll do whatever we need to do," she said. "They have a very good team, a veteran team. They're obviously bigger, but I like our team. We have to get better every game and continue to improve."
While Pac-10 play should expose Arizona's size deficiencies down low, the Wildcats are expected to get a boost in the post with the expected late-December return of freshman center Amina Njonkou from a stress fracture.
"We'll definitely get more of an inside presence," Bonvicini said. "We're getting her back in shape. We don't want to put pressure on her early. She'll work her way back in."
Njonkou should be ready for home games Dec. 29 against Washington State and Dec. 31 against Washington, with the Huskies' contest televised by FSN Northwest, Bonvicini said.
Even with Njonkou back, Arizona will be undersized, with no Wildcat taller than 6-foot-1, which freshman forward Whitney Fields said will be a problem in Pac-10 play.
"We haven't really played tough teams with height," she said. "It's going to be a competition, but it's going to make me stronger at the same time."
The Wildcats finish the break at No. 22 UCLA Jan. 6 and USC Jan. 8.
Bonvicini said that freshmen often improve the most over the break.
"For them, (the) first semester is a big adjustment from high school," she said. "They continue to get better. I feel they need that time."
The break should help both freshman guard Kelsey Burns, who showed signs of breaking out with consecutive jumpers to complete a 12-0 run in Saturday's win over Lehigh, and Fields, who's been the team's most productive newcomer, averaging 5.5 points and 6 rebounds, tied for first on the team.
"I feel like when I'm out of school I can put in the extra time to run and just work out," Fields said. "I'll be working harder. I'll have more time to sleep and rest up."
The break may also be the time when the NCAA decides freshman guard Malia O'Neal's eligibility. Until that happens, the prized recruit from Seattle cannot practice or play with the team.