‘A perfect situation’: Arizona ‘excited’ for First Four matchup against Auburn in NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament

Despite facing challenges throughout the season, Arizona Wildcats coach Adia Barnes leads her squad into the tournament for the fourth consecutive year, ready to make their mark. (Photo by Simon Asher/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The most magical Sunday in all of college basketball occurred on St. Patrick’s Day with the annual bracket selection of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, and it might have delivered the first upset of the spring.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Arizona women’s basketball team was invited to the Big Dance, and that was far from a given going into the day. After starting the season 5-0, the Wildcats lost 12 of their next 20 games.

However, Arizona came on to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, drawing a First Four bid as an 11-seed in Portland Region 3. The Wildcats will face Auburn in Storrs, Connecticut, Thursday.

After finishing the 2022-23 season with a 22-10 record and suffering a second-round loss to Maryland in the tournament, the Wildcats are just 17-15 as they head into the Portland Region 3 this year.

“I’m so excited for this team. I’m so excited for Arizona. If you were to ask me if we’d be in such a situation a month ago, I would have said, ‘Oh, a little tough,’’’ said Wildcats coach Adia Barnes. “So I’m just happy that we’ve worked so hard to put ourselves in a situation to be in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth year in a row. So very, very happy and blessed.”

Meanwhile, the Tigers enter the First Four and NCAA Tournament for the first time under third-year coach Johnnie Harris after finishing seventh in the competitive Southeastern Conference with a 20-11 record.

The winner will advance to play sixth-seeded Syracuse in the first round of the tournament with a chance to play either powerhouse third-seeded UConn or 14-seeded Jackson State in the next round.

“We’re excited to be in, and we’ll just prepare to play that play-in game and that’s just another opportunity for our team to play,” Harris said. “It’s never been easy for us, so we don’t expect that. I expect our team to come out ready to play.”

The Tigers play with a sense of toughness and hope to make opposing guards uncomfortable. Auburn has caused so much disruption that they are ranked fifth nationally in opponents’ assists to forced turnovers, allowing only 8.5 assists per game versus 19.5 turnovers a game.

That same hard-nosed approach allowed the Tigers to overcome adversity throughout the season.

“I like our team’s resilience. I think we bounce back really well,” Harris said. “I think our team has some toughness, so we’ll put all that together and take it on the road to Connecticut and put our best foot forward.”

For the Wildcats to win their first game in the 2024 version of March Madness, they will need to keep up the high level of play they have shown of late, especially on the defensive side.

That starts with fifth-year guard Helena Pueyo. Arizona has the seventh-best stealing defense in the country and ranks in the top 35 for turnovers forced per game. Pueyo has set the defensive tempo for the Wildcats all season and ranks fifth nationally in total steals with 103 and 10th nationally in steals per game at 3.2.

Arizona will also have to slow down Auburn graduate guard Honesty Scott-Grayson,who is coming off a team-high 17 points per game with most of her damage coming from inside the arc.

After an unusual up-and-down season for the Wildcats, Barnes and Co. were tested this season with one of the hardest schedules in the country, playing ranked teams such as Ole Miss, Texas and Gonzaga in their non-conference schedule and faced nationally ranked USC, UCLA and Stanford twice in Pac-12 play.

The difficulty of the schedule ultimately helped Arizona get into the First Four, but Barnes indicated she might have overdone it.

“I’ve also learned some other things, and this is what I think is always contradictory, because everybody always says you want to have this hard strength of schedule,” she said. “I really scheduled too hard for what we had. So when I look at all of our comparables, all the teams that were like those last 11 (or) 12 (teams in), our numbers were significantly better.

“So it’s like, that’s kind of hard, because now I’m just going to schedule easier. I thought whether we’re only 9-11 in the Pac-12 or two games above .500, we had one of the hardest schedules in the country.

“Now we played all those teams, so I thought that would hold more value.”

To go along with their hard schedule, Arizona started three freshmen after losing six players to the transfer portal last season. The lack of experience hurt the Wildcats in some games this season but those younger players also gained valuable experience for the tournament.

Barnes said there is no doubt that making the NCAA Tournament, even in the First Four, is a better option than the Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament for her young team.

“I think that as you’ve built a program, you want to sustain success,” Barnes said. “So you want a program where every year you’re in the NCAA Tournament. I think there’s so much value to playing in the postseason.

“I think it’s just an amazing experience for our young players, and they’re the foundation for the future. So I’m excited. I think that we’re good enough to beat a lot of these tournament teams, and we have a very favorable bracket. So I think that it’s a perfect situation for us.”

Barnes is staying optimistic about Arizona’s showdown against Auburn, even after facing criticism all year. She has often stuck with younger players and that has caused some more experienced players to opt for the transfer portal.

Retaining players has been a struggle, as evidenced by the six transfers lost last year. Still, Barnes has kept Arizona in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s something that is a point of pride.

“I’ve been here eight years (and) it was my first coaching job,” she said. “We’ve completely transformed the program.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Addison Kalmbach expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Kalmbach has interned in broadcast operations at FOX Sports and as a digital reporter with PHOENIX Magazine and Detroit City FC. He also has done freelance work for R1S1 Sports.