PHOENIX – It has been so long since the Arizona’s women’s basketball team reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 that Wildcats coach Adia Barnes was playing for the school at the time.
But with a victory over Brigham Young today at the University of Texas-San Antonio’s Convocation Center, the Wildcats can move past the second round of the tournament for the first time since 1998, when Barnes won the then-Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year award as a 5-foot-11 forward. Tipoff is at 4 p.m.
“It’s awesome,” Barnes said of experiencing the tournament as a coach with the school she once led as a player. “To have been there as a player and now to do it as a coach, I think a lot of people don’t have success at their alma mater. It’s not easy.”
While it might not have been easy, Barnes has rebuilt the Arizona program since she was hired in 2016 and has the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
Senior guard Aari McDonald said defense and unity will determine if the No. 3-seeded Wildcats are able to advance against BYU, an 11-seed, and make a deep tournament run.
“We have to execute, play great defense, play together, and most importantly have fun,” McDonald said. “I think (if) we take care of those things, we’ll come up victorious.”
Barnes agreed that defense will make the difference for the Wildcats, as it did in their dominating, 79-44, opening-round victory over No. 14-seed Stony Brook.
“Our defense creates a lot of offense,” Barnes said. “We play our best when we have balance,”
The Wildcats haven’t faced BYU since 2013, a game the Cougars won, 64-56. However, Barnes said facing unfamiliar opponents is just part of the NCAA Tournament experience.
“You’re going to face different people that you don’t know anything about,” she said. “That’s the excitement of March Madness.”
BYU improved to 19-5 with a 69-66 upset of sixth-seeded Rutgers in the first round, and its first round game.
By the numbers, the Cougars and Wildcats are mirror images of each other. BYU averages 69.3 points per game compared to the Wildcats 67.1.
BYU also holds slight advantages in rebounds per game (37.2 to 36.9), and assists per game (16.5 to 12.0).
The Cougars are led by sophomore guard Shaylee Gonzales, one of four BYU players to start all 24 games this season and the Cougars’ leading scorer, averaging 17.9 points a game along with 5.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
She played all 40 minutes against Rutgers, scoring 17 points, and hitting 10 of 11 free throws.
Meanwhile, the 17-5 Wildcats shot 67% from 3-point range, making eight of 12 from behind the arc in their first-round victory. Maybe more important, Arizona forced 25 turnovers, scoring 25 points off of them. They made 17 steals and blocked six shots in a strong all-around defensive performance.
The Wildcats average 17.8 points off turnovers and 10.8 steals per game this season and have blocked 103 shots.
Senior forward Sam Thomas led the defensive effort, doing a little bit of everything for the Wildcats in the win. Thomas recorded two points, made six steals, handed out three assists and grabbed three rebounds.
“Every game, I try to go in and do whatever I can to get the team to win,” she said.
After the first-round victory, McDonald said it just felt good to get an NCAA Tournament game under the belt.
“It feels great, got the jitters out,” said McDonald, who led Arizona with 20 points against Stony Brook. “I’m proud of my teammates today.”