Wildcats in the midst of rare postseason run
12 months ago, if you had told a fan of Arizona women’s basketball that come next season, the Wildcats would be making a deep postseason run, they probably wouldn’t have believed you. After all, the ‘Cats were coming off a 6-24 season, the second season under the tenure of head coach Adia Barnes. They hadn’t had a winning season since 2010. They hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 2005.
Yet here the Wildcats are, on the back end of a 17-12 regular season, heading to the Sweet 16 of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament after two double-digit wins. For the program, it’s the first time since 1998 the Wildcats have won multiple postseason games in a season. That year, the ‘Cats made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament led on the court by none other than Barnes.
Barnes, who often talks about how she thinks it takes six years to build a program to a national championship contender, credited the WNIT for the program’s success when she was a player.
“I remember: Me as a player at Arizona, the pivotal point in our program was going to the NIT and winning it, and that changed everything,” Barnes said. “That started the avalanche, and we got better, then we made the NCAA [tournament].”
It’s not just on-court milestones, like redshirt sophomore Aari McDonald eclipsing the 800-point mark on the season, that the Wildcats are hitting.
For their first round matchup versus Idaho State, there were 2,500 tickets pre-sold, the most for any game. For both of their WNIT games, attendance has been over 3,200, which has allowed the program to continue hosting the tournament games instead of going on the road. In addition to Barnes, football head coach Kevin Sumlin, athletic director Dave Heeke and Wildcat alumnus Solomon Hill are pledging tickets for the ZonaZoo.
For their upcoming matchup against the University of Idaho on Thursday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m., Barnes is hoping for a record crowd in McKale Center.
“Our goal is to get 5,000 at the next game, pack the house, and just make this place really hard to play in,” she said.
It isn’t just the eyes of the fans the Wildcats are getting. They’ve drawn praise from some of the best coaches in the country, including Oregon head coach Kelly Graves, who said after their defeat of the Wildcats in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament that the Wildcats were on the rise.
“I think Coach Adia has done a really good job there,” he said. “She’s building something that looks a little bit like ours did a couple years ago. I think that’s a team that’s going to be a team to be reckoned with the next few years.”
Although they aren’t ready to compete for NCAA national championships just yet, any postseason success is a welcome development for the program and fans alike. With a good young core of talent, this could be just the beginning.
The team features players like McDonald, who was at one point the leading scorer in the nation, now hovering around the top five. Arizona also boasts freshman Cate Reese, who was the first McDonald’s All-American in program history, and sophomore Sam Thomas, Pac-12 All Freshman in 2017.
As the team gains postseason experience in the form of the WNIT, it primes them for more success in the future.
“I think it’s a really good step for this program, and it’s really good for the young players to get experience,” Barnes said. “Because once you get that experience, you’re hungry for more, and then the bar is raised for next year.”
When Barnes was hired as the head coach in 2016, she had high hopes for the future.
“I believe we can compete for championships in the Pac-12 and nationally,”she said.
In just year three at the helm, Barnes seems as though she has her team poised to do just that in the years to come.
Follow Noah Auclair on Twitter