If we have learned anything in the past few days, it’s if Adia Barnes asks for something, she shall receive. Barnes spent the last few weeks urging fans to come out to watch Arizona women’s basketball’s postseason run, and the championship game of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament was a culmination of her and her team’s efforts.
On Saturday, April 6, history was made in McKale Center. The women’s basketball team won the WNIT championship and the final attendance count was 14,644, the largest crowd in program and Pac-12 women’s basketball history. But that count is so much more than just a number.
According to Barnes, the record-breaking fan base is one of the reasons her team was “able to pull this out and win.” Barnes has gotten the point across numerous times that these immense crowds in McKale prove her program is only going one direction from here on out: the right direction.
Whether history repeats itself is a question for another time, but for now, history did repeat itself for Barnes.
In 1996, Barnes — a sophomore undergraduate at the time — led UA all the way to the WNIT Championship against what team? You guessed it: the Northwestern Wildcats.
“I think everything happens for a reason. I think you’re put in situations for a reason, and there’s always a bigger plan, and so it is probably meant to be,” Barnes said on the déjà vu she witnessed Saturday afternoon. “This is a pretty good story … it’s pretty magical.”
Not making the NCAA Tournament is a tough pill for any collegiate basketball team to swallow at first, but Barnes took a step back and realized it might be for the better. The third-year head coach knew her team would benefit from the “high pressure, one-and-done” games her crew would have to face in the WNIT.
“I thought we got better and better as time went on … We played different teams. To come into the WNIT and get six different teams, it’s better for us, because we got a lot more games, a lot more practices. And it was just a magical run,” Barnes said.
Freshman Cate Reese chimed in, saying, “I think if you just look at how we’ve transitioned throughout the season, we’ve only been getting better since day one.”
The head coach for the Northwestern women’s basketball team, Joseph McKeown, recognized the experience was good for both teams, even though Arizona was the only team to come out victorious.
“The sell-out crowd was tremendous; I think it was great for our players. Even though it was probably an advantage for Arizona, it was great for our players to play in that atmosphere. To have that many people care about our sport, I thought it was a great experience for us,” McKeown said. “I wish the outcome were a little better, but our players did an incredible job.”
After the celebration had ended on the McKale Center court, Barnes said she has loved the rebuilding process she has emphasized in her three years as head coach. The best part for her is all five of her starters will be returning next year. She said she recognizes her players will be “hungry” for more in the coming season.
“I expect these young women [her starters] to lead the next class that comes in and to teach them what it takes to get where we’re at now. It’s hard,” said Barnes.
The expectations for the team next season will be very different than the expectations for this season, which came after a six-game victory season in 2017-2018.
“It feels good, but we’ll get our rest for a couple weeks. But we still have unfinished business: We want to advance and get into NCAAs, so we definitely have a lot of work to do,” Aari McDonald, the WNIT MVP, said. “We’re going to be scary. With the incoming talent, we can build something special.”
The strong relationships Barnes has built with her players has contributed to the team’s success, according to her players.
“To be able to have with [Barnes] is great. I think it really helps with the basketball standpoint, and when life throws things at you, having somebody that you can talk to,” forward Tee Tee Starks said.
McDonald also spoke highly of her relationship with Barnes.
“She [Barnes] values everyone’s input … and she really does have trust and faith in us, and I appreciate that,” McDonald said.
Saturday looked like only the beginning for UA women’s basketball and with Barnes at the helm for the foreseeable future, there’s no telling what accomplishment might be next.
Follow Amit Syal on Twitter