Arizona women’s basketball team ends drought, advances in NCAA Tournament

Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes has turned the Wildcats program around and led team to its first NCAA Tournament in 16 years. (File photo by Nathan Hiatt/Cronkite News)

Even Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes didn’t see this much success coming for the Wildcats this quickly.

“I expected to be in this situation in like Year Seven,” Barnes said with a smile Thursday. “Maybe Year Eight if I last that long.”

Behind Barnes, the Wildcats find themselves back in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament for the first time in 16 years. They defeated Stony Brook in their opening game Monday, 79-44.

In a way, it is as if Barnes has come full circle.

As Arizona’s all-time leading scorer, she was on the first team in school history to qualify for the NCAA tournament back in 1997. Now in her fifth season as head coach of the same program, she led the Wildcats to their first tournament appearance since 2005.

As with any team breaking a long postseason drought, the tournament is a new experience for much of this year’s Arizona squad. Guards Aari McDonald, Bendu Yeaney and Shaina Pellington are the only players to have played in the tournament, and all are transfers from other schools.

Junior forward Cate Reese said that having a coach who has played in the NCAA Tournament before is beneficial.

“It’s great to be able to have a coach that has played, especially being at Arizona,” Reese said. “There’s not many coaches out there that have played specifically at the school they are coaching at. I think that’s great, but also her having some inside view of being at the tournament. I think that’s great, too. And I think it helps especially because so few of us have been to the tournament.”

Still, it was a new experience for Barnes, too. The victory over Stony Brook marked her first game in the tournament as a head coach.

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“We don’t know what to expect,” Barnes said Friday. “Aari hasn’t been here for a while. Sam (Thomas) has never been here. Cate has never been here. Trinity (Baptiste) has never been here. There is going to be the (nerves). Nervous is good for basketball, but scared is bad.”

While the Wildcats might have experienced those nerves Monday, they clearly were not scared of the moment. They dominated the first quarter, forcing 11 turnovers to set the tone for the rest of their afternoon in San Antonio.

McDonald, a senior, led the Wildcats with 20 points. Reese and Baptiste were also in double figures, while Thomas tied her season high in steals with six. Thomas said it felt great finally getting to experience a tournament win as a senior.

“You see the court there, it says ‘Women’s NCAA,’ so that was nice to see, and you’re in a big arena, so we had some fans there,” Thomas said. “We had (UArizona) President (Dr. Robert) Robbins there. It was definitely great to finally have some fans back again.”

And all of the Wildcats had the chance to share in the victory. Arizona’s big lead late in the game allowed Barnes to pull her starters and allow all eight bench players to get playing time in an NCAA Tournament game.

Arizona announced a contract extension for Barnes Thursday and, pending approval from the Arizona Board of Regents, Barnes will be under contract to coach the Wildcats through the 2025-26 season.

Barnes said Thursday that she was happy to be offered the extension and not much discussion was needed to consummate a deal.

“I think that when you’re wanted by people and you want to be somewhere, it works out and it’s effortless,” Barnes said. “That’s how it was here, and that’s really important to me.”

With the win over Stony Brook, Arizona advances to face 11-seed Brigham Young in the round of 32 on Wednesday. BYU is coming off an upset win over No. 6-seed Rutgers in the first round.

“We’re going to celebrate this one a little after the game and just be happy that we won, but now we’re going to eat, recover and move on to BYU,” Baptiste said. “Watch scout, watch film and learn, and just have the same mindset going into the next game.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

James Johnston expects to graduate in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Johnston is working for Cronkite Sports this spring.