When the season started eight months ago, there weren’t many high expectations for Arizona women’s basketball. The team was coming off a six-win season, head coach Adia Barnes was entering just year three of her tenure and the Wildcats were playing in the loaded Pac-12.
Throughout the regular season, especially early on, Arizona sometimes struggled to have even 1,000 fans in attendance. But the trajectory of the program couldn't be higher, as the Wildcats made the Women's National Invitation Tournament and then made history.
On Saturday afternoon, playing in front of a sold-out McKale Center, Arizona defeated Northwestern 56-42 to win the WNIT championship for the second time in program history. The 14,644 people in attendance were both a program and Pac-12 record.
“This city’s been amazing,” Barnes said. “Thank you to President Robbins, Dave Heeke for enabling us to play here. It was amazing, just magical. We made history today.”
Aari McDonald finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Cate Reese finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. Both were named to the WNIT All-Tournament team, with McDonald being named the MVP of the tournament.
Defense was the story of the game, with Arizona holding Northwestern to 27 percent shooting on the day. At halftime, Northwestern was shooting 22 percent. From 3-point range, it was also shooting 27 percent.
“I think it was great for our players to play in that atmosphere,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “To have that many people care about our sport, I thought it was a great experience.”
In the first quarter, Northwestern jumped out to an early 5-2 lead, but Arizona found its groove and quickly put together two 7-0 runs, and in total, went on a 14-3 run to go up 16-8. After that, however, the offense went stagnant, and the ‘Cats didn't score for the last 4:18 of the quarter.
Those offensive woes continued into the second quarter for Arizona, which was unable to score until almost two minutes had passed. After that, the Wildcats replicated their offensive success in the first quarter and put together another 14-3 run that would have them leading 30-17 heading into the halftime locker room.
In the third quarter, the ‘Cats continued to play good basketball, going up by as many as 19 points before finishing the quarter with a 49-33 lead. In the fourth, the ‘Cats finished strong and put the game away to secure the WNIT championship.
“Today is the start of it. I think it’s gonna be an avalanche,” Barnes said. “Next year, they’re gonna be hungrier, they’re gonna want to make it to the tournament. It’s kind of like when I was here: We won it, and then next year, the NIT wasn’t good enough, you weren’t satisfied. So next year, it’s the tournament. It’s just steps in the right direction.”
For now, the ‘Cats won’t be back in action until October. It’s safe to say, though, the buzz from this season and this team will linger around Tucson for quite some time.
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