Arizona freshman Cate Reese (25) has been a force on the court, averaging 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Her biggest challenge has come off the court, as she tries to balance life and basketball. “I’ve gotten better at that,” she said.

It’s not easy being a freshman.

Just ask Arizona women’s basketball players Semaj Smith, Bryce Nixon and Cate Reese.

Everything is new.

It’s the first time being away from parents who typically told them when to study and when to get ready for practice or a game. The first time cooking. The first time doing laundry and packing for road trips. The first time learning plays.

And, for many of the new Wildcats, it’s the first time they’ve really struggled. Each of the three freshmen were highly ranked prospects, the best players on their teams and among the top competitors in their cities.

There’s a reason why coach Adia Barnes jokes that “the best thing about being a freshman is that you’ll be a sophomore soon.” It can be rough.

“Practice can be intense sometimes,” said Reese, whose team will take on No. 21 Arizona State on Friday night in Tempe. “I don’t think I was expecting it to be this intense, but it’s definitely made me a better player, a better person.

“Coach Adia doesn’t just coach us, she gives us life lessons, too, which helps a lot. Ali (Reese, her sister, who was a walk-on on last year’s squad) prepared me a little for what was to come, but until you experience it yourself you never really know. When I came it was a little shocking. I’ve gotten used to it now.”

Reese has definitely grown accustomed to practice and Pac-12 competition. She is averaging 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, making her the leading scorer and rebounder among Pac-12 freshmen. She has won the conference’s freshman of the week award three times — and twice since Pac-12 play started.  

Nixon knew coming in that she would be competing against some of the best players in the country when she got to college. Still, she said, the adjustment has been jarring.

“(The hardest thing) is the speed, athleticism, and strength of the game in college — especially in Pac-12,” said Nixon, a 5-10 guard who comes off the bench. “I knew all the girls were really good, yet it is different from what I thought. Every game gives me more experience.”

Nixon averages just 2.1 points per game, but is working to expand her role. She lifts extra weights on Mondays, the Wildcats’ day off. Nixon tries to focus on the little things that can give her an on-court advantage.

Two weeks ago, it paid off. Nixon came in at the end of Arizona’s blowout loss to Oregon State and coolly knocked down a jumper. Defensively, she’s doing a better job of staying in front of her player.

“I’ve always been the one who comes early and stays after to get in extra work,” she said. “In order to get more playing time I am working on my defense with coach Salvo (Coppa) and playing with the boys to work on my speed.

“My defense is getting better from reps and confidence of working on it as much as I have been. I think every game in Pac-12 is so different because every team is so different. Getting those reps helps me learn.”

Nixon texts Aari McDonald all the time asking for advice. She also counts Tee Tee Starks, Sam Thomas, Lucia Alonso, and Destiny Graham among those who also give her little tips, encouragement, and support.

Reese’s go-to texter is her dad, William.

“Before every game my dad always texts me and tells me what to do,” said Reese. “I think what he has been saying has helped me in the games. He tells me to rebound offensively and rebound defensively. And try to run the floor as best I can to get open shots. I’ve been doing that (over the last four games).”

Some of the hardest obstacles have come off the court.

Cooking is one of them. Reese and Nixon are roommates who have yet to find success in the kitchen. They haven’t burned anything, but the food they make “just doesn’t taste good,” Nixon said.

Reese’s biggest lesson has come with her classwork: “Not procrastinating on anything. It’s worse if you have to rush at the last minute. The amount of practice we do and having to balance everything else we do, like schoolwork, free time, sleep. I’ve gotten better at that since I’ve been here.”

Then there is Smith. On the court, she is averaging 10.2 minutes, 2.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.

Her toughest hurdle? Remembering what to pack for road games. She’s forgotten shorts and most recently an important piece of her travel clothes: her pants.

“She forgot her joggers for the set we wore home on the plane so we all had to wear a different set,” Reese said.

Nixon, who claims she has “never forgotten anything,” played high school ball at Phoenix’s Arcadia High School. Her parents come to every home game and will be in the stands at Wells Fargo Arena on Friday night, along with Nixon’s grandparents and friends. It will almost be like a home game for her.

An Arizona win would mark yet another step in what’s become the largest single-season turnaround in program history.

“I think it’s a game-by-game thing; we focus on the team ahead of us,” said Nixon.

“But we’ve turned some heads, beat good teams and we’ve lost badly to teams. We recognize it and want to get better and better.”

Rim shots

  • On Dec. 30, UA knocked off then-ranked No. 17 ASU 51-39 at home. Friday, the Wildcats head up to Tempe, along with two busloads full of fans, to see if they can sweep the series. This time ASU is ranked No. 21. Both teams lost to UCLA last weekend.
  • Barnes tries not to emphasize one game over others. However, given that this is a rivalry and Arizona is coming off a tough triple-overtime loss to UCLA on Sunday, there may be some added pressure.

“We look at it game by game, especially now, as every game matters,” said Reese. “We want to win. We focus on this game and how we want to play; staying to our rules on defense. We are focusing on playing hard and boxing out — one of the reasons we lost the last one. We recognize it is ASU, yet we take it as any other game we play in the Pac-12.”

  • McDonald, whose 25.2 points per game rank second nationally, is in good company when it c
  • omes to single-season scoring in the Pac-12. It took her 20 games to score 500 points. Only two players have done it in fewer games: her former Washington teammate Kelsey Plum (19 and 17) and Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike (19). McDonald is also the first sophomore to get to 500 points in 20 games or less since the 1999-00 season. McDonald is also 18 points away from knocking Barnes down a slot in single-season scoring as a sophomore. Barnes
  • currently sits in third place with 522 points, while McDonald has 504.