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Breya Cunningham’s basketball career has certainly had many more ups than downs.
The 6-4 forward, an incoming freshman on coach UA Adia Barnes’ 2023-24 Arizona team, picked up just about every award out there from her freshman to senior years at La Jolla Country Day school in the San Diego area. Her averages of 18.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 2.7 blocks per game earned her McDonald’s and MaxPreps All-America nods, a spot on the Nike Hoops Summit team, the CIF-San Diego Section Player of the Year award, and the honor of San Diego Union-Tribune’s girls high school athlete of the year.
She’s even played internationally for USA Basketball in recent years, including with the U16 and U17 teams.
But despite all of her accolades and previous Team USA experience, in May came one of those rare down moments for Cunningham. She was initially left off the U19 Team USA roster when it was announced ahead of this Summer’s FIBA U19 Women’s Basketball World Cup.
So she turned her attention to her college career. She began her individual training in Tucson, focusing on improving her skills to be ready for the upcoming Wildcat season.
A month or so later, Barnes called Cunningham into her office in McKale Center. She told the phenom to expect a call from USA Basketball after all.
Still, Cunningham wasn’t so sure.
“When (Barnes) said that I didn’t really believe her,” said Cunningham, ranked 10th overall in the Class of 2024 by ESPN’s HoopGurlz. “I wasn’t sure if I actually was going to get one.”
Barnes was right, all right. The call came, and Cunningham was indeed going to Spain to compete in FIBA’s U19 World Cup, even as one of the younger players on the Team USA roster. She was a late addition to the team when injuries flared up and other roster adjustments were made.
But Cunningham had been here before, after all — those U16 and U17 teams, for starters — so she knew a little of what to expect.
“Just being able to play for Team USA,” Cunningham said of being able to wear those letters across her chest. “Each time i’ve done it felt like a dream because it’s a big accomplishment.”
That’s not just playing; it’s winning. Team USA won its third consecutive gold medal, and 10th all-time at the U19 level. The U.S. team went 7-0 overall in the tournament, including a 69-66 win over Spain in the championship game.
“Every time you win a gold medal it’s a surreal feeling.”
Wildcats’ glittering gold
For those keeping score, five other current Wildcat players or coaches own gold medals — 11 total for the most coveted hardware.
Cunningham joins Barnes (2021 AmeriCup); assistant coach Salvo Coppa (three, including the 2011 South-Eastern Asian Games with Thailand, 2010 FIBA Island Games with Sicilia and 2007 U18 European Championship C with Malta); Helena Pueyo (2022 FIBA’s U23 3×3 Mediterranean Games for Spain); Kailyn Gilbert (2022 FIBA U18 Women’s Americas Championship); and Jada Williams (2022 FIBA U17 World Cup; 2021 FIBA Americas U16 Championship).
Other Wildcats who played with their national teams this summer include transfer Sali Kourouma winning bronze last week at Afrobasket with Mali, Pueyo in the FIBA 3×3 with Spain, and Esmery Martinez in AmeriCup with the Dominican Republic national team.
Pueyo has also won numerous medals in international competitions.
While Cunningham played sparingly in the championship game at the U19 World Cup. For the tournament overall, she averaged 7.7 points, 6.7 rebounds per game while blocking eight shots and collecting three steals.
Cunningham led the U.S. team in blocks and was second in rebounds (Chloe Kitts, a sophomore at South Carolina, averaged eight per game).
It’s the steals that are something Cunningham takes pride in. As a big, she doesn’t have as many opportunities in that realm as others, but she hopes to have more in the upcoming season as they “come from when I’m playing hard defense.”
“I had a lot of moments … where my defense helped change the momentum of the game,” Cunningham said. “You can never stop getting better at things. My defense at times, I was really proud of, but also other times, it showed me that I needed to work on certain aspects of my defense.”
Cunningham was one of the younger players on the squad, with many entering their sophomore seasons; four of them are soon-to-be opponents in the Pac-12 this year in UCLA’s Kiki Rice and Londynn Jones, Stanford’s Talana Lepolo and Oregon’s Grace Van Slooten.
She watched up close and picked their brains about basketball at the collegiate level. None more than Van Slooten — the only other forward in that grouping — who was one of the top freshmen in the country last season. Van Slooten gave opponents fits on how to defend her, starting 30 of 32 games she played for the Ducks, averaging 13.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
Cunningham was intrigued with how Van Slooten pushes the pace and it’s one of the things she said she’s been working on this summer, especially since returning to Tucson from the World Cup in Spain.
She’s also working on being consistent with her block defense, communicating with her teammates, being even more disruptive and expanding her game to include mid-range jumpers.
This U19 experience has given Cunningham a little extra insight into how her game matches up with the players she will be facing this season. This perspective confirms Barnes’ vision of what works in Cunningham’s game and what needs to be strengthened.
Cunningham added that she’s excited for the chance to learn under Barnes; a forward during her playing days, the UA coach has first-hand knowledge.
“(One of the best things) is being coached by another big,” Cunningham said. “Well, she was an undersized post when she played, but being coached by somebody who understands your position — more than other coaches probably would.
“And being able to learn those tips and tricks from somebody that was in your position,” she added. “I think it’s very valuable.”
• After winning gold, Cunningham was seen doing the splits on the court as her team celebrated.
“In a prior life I was a cheerleader,” Cunningham said with a laugh. “I did gymnastics for like two weeks when I was when I was eight and I never let it go. It’s a running joke with some of the people that I played with the last two years on Team USA. I always do the splits sometime during the tournament.”
• Cunningham didn’t have much time to rest after returning to the U.S. from Spain. Last week, she was one of a select number of top college and high school athletes in Oregon for the Nike Basketball Academy.
• Arizona was recognized with a special mention by the Women’s College Basketball Coaches Association for a top GPA last season (3.331).
Contact sports reporter PJ Brown at email@example.com. On Twitter: @PJBrown09
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