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How Adia Barnes helped take the Arizona women's basketball program to the top

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SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 29: in the Elite Eight round of the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on March 29, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos)

On April 4, 2016, Arizona hired head coach Adia Barnes to lead its women’s basketball program. 

The program had been in a stalemate ever since Joan Bonvicini stopped coaching the team. Barnes, a player under Bonvicini, came in with a herculean task in front of her. The biggest women’s sport at the University of Arizona had historically been softball, but Barnes wanted to put the woman’s basketball program on the map.

Barnes had been a member of the University of Washington’s coaching staff from 2011 to 2016 and was on staff when that program broke through and went to a Final Four. While she was at Washington, a player named Aari McDonald committed there as well. During Barnes’ first two years at Arizona, it was a struggle. The program only won 20 total games and only six in her second year. There were still flashes, though, that Barnes was building something. 

By her second year, she had secured a good mix of recruits and transfers, like McDonald and Sam Thomas, but had to sit out that year. Barnes’ third year was when a lot of things finally started to come together. Before the season even started, Barnes and her staff secured the first McDonald’s All-American in Arizona’s history, Cate Reese. 

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The team started out hot, getting to 12-1, before stumbling a bit and finishing 17-12. They won their first game in the Pac-12 tournament before losing to Oregon. Arizona was then invited to the WNIT and rattled off six straight wins to win the WNIT championship. 

The team was led by a few players but mainly McDonald. She asserted herself all season, and that WNIT run was no different. The Tucson community sensed the accomplishment that was in front of them and sold out McKale Center for the game. 

Expectations were high in Barnes’ fourth year. Although McDonald was an All-Pac-12 selection the year before, she really came onto the scene even more this year. She was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the year and was named as a second-team All-American. The biggest team highlights from that year were a season sweep of Arizona State and a huge upset victory over Stanford. The team was destined to be an NCAA Tournament and could have been as high as a four-seed, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit and halted sports at the time. Their season ended suddenly, and they were left wondering about the next season. 

McDonald and Thomas decided to return and opened up the possibilities of a magical year. It was the fulfillment of Barnes’ groundwork. McDonald burst onto the national scene, and with that, brought Arizona with her. She was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year again and also won Pac-12 Player of the Year overall. After a late-year slip-up, Barnes has Arizona playing their best basketball of the season so far. Led by their tenacious defense and McDonald’s leadership, they have pulled off the unthinkable and got to the program’s first Final Four. 

Barnes has carefully laid the foundation for a program that will be a force to be reckoned with as long as she is there. This echoes and mirrors what Lute Olson did in his first five seasons with the men’s program. He got them in the Final Four in his fifth year as well. There is also a mirror of McDonald being as transcendent of a player as Sean Elliot was. 

Barnes has put the program on the map, and by all accounts, they are going to stay relevant based on the recruiting that she has pulled off already and the incoming recruits that she has convinced to sign. This is insanely important because Arizona now has the two most notable women’s sports on the map. These women are going to forever be immortalized in Arizona Athletics lore because they did something for the first time. 

I would also expect both Barnes’ and McDonald’s jerseys to join Shawntinice Polk’s in the rafters of McKale Center. It seems like it’s overdue for Barnes who was considered the best player in Arizona women’s basketball history before McDonald, and McDonald herself deserves that honor because of what she has accomplished for the program. The one-two punch of Barnes and McDonald is a force to be reckoned with and will be remembered for years to come.


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Daily (4/9)
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Updated April 10, 2021