The Arizona women’s basketball team jumped out to a 3-1 start to begin its season, but a season ago the Wildcats likely would have been 1-3 in the same circumstances.
In two of their three wins—against George Mason and Southern Utah—the Wildcats have managed to erase double-digit deficits on their way to victory.
Both games were on the road, too.
"It shows we're getting tougher mentally and physically," sophomore guard Taryn Griffey said after a 81-70 comeback win against George Mason. "I feel like we would have definitely hung our head and never come back from it, and that's why this year is completely different. We're focusing on not worrying about our mistakes and just to keep pushing and fighting and everything will work out in the end."
Part of the team’s new attitude can be attributed to a coaching change. Arizona replaced Niya Butts with Adia Barnes, who has focused on building the team’s rapport from day one.
“We’ve been working on team aspects a lot since the summer, and I think that team chemistry and being together a lot is helping with that,” senior forward LaBrittney Jones said of the team's comeback mentality. “We all want to have each other’s backs.”
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the Wildcats’ roster is loaded with seniors like Jones. A season ago, Arizona had just one senior on its roster; this year it has six.
“That plays a huge role in it,” JaLea Bennett said of Barnes’ impact on the team’s resiliency, “but it’s also from us too. We got a lot of seniors and this is their last year. They want to do good, and we want to do good for them.”
So far, that has translated into a team that plays for a full 40 minutes, even if it finds itself in an early hole.
“I think we’re learning to fight back and work together and basically staying together—that’s the main thing,” Bennett said. “In the past we fell apart, but we’re working on staying together and just fighting because we know we can come back. It’s doable. I think we’re a lot better at that.”
“Feed the beast”
Of course, the Wildcats’ 3-1 start can’t solely be credited to the team’s ability to comeback from large deficits—Jones averaging close to a double-double undoubtedly helps.
The senior forward is averaging 19.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and has been Arizona’s leading scorer and leading rebounder in every game this season.
It has not come by surprise.
“I thought she’d be like this,” Barnes said after Jones posted 23 points and nine rebounds in a 62-58 loss to North Texas. “I thought she’d be a double-double. I’m the type [of coach] where if it’s working and they’re not stopping it, we’re going to continue to go to her. She’s what I expected; she’s just a great player.”
Jones was Arizona’s leading scorer last season as well, but her game has elevated to a whole different level this season, as she is averaging roughly seven points and three rebounds more per contest.
“It’s just my last year and I’m really just trying to do whatever I can to help my team and make it to postseason,” Jones said. "That’s what our main goal is, and I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help.”
Jones said she felt that in the past she had not been maximizing her athletic ability, but that has not been the case this season.
“I just feel like this year I have to give it my all,” she said. “It’s my last go around, so if I don’t do it, I’m going to have regrets and I don’t want to have any regrets leaving here.”
And Barnes certainly does not have any regrets about trying to find ways to get Jones the ball.
“We’ve been going to her,” Barnes said. “I always say ‘feed the beast.’ ”
Coming off a road victory against Southern Utah, Arizona will return home to face Florida Atlantic on Thursday.
The Owls are 3-3 this season and 0-2 on the road. Arizona lost its most recent home game to North Texas and wants to do a better job of protecting its home court.
“I accept mistakes,” Barnes said, “but I don’t accept anybody out-hustling you for a ball on your home court. That’s not what I want.”
Barnes also wants her team to play with a certain "swag."
“I was a player and there are players [who] are ready to play any time, any place, against anybody and that’s the confidence and swag that I want," Barnes said. "And we’re going to get that, and we’re starting to get it."
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. The Wildcats are 1-1 in McKale Center this season.
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