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Slam-Dunk Squad 

This year’s UA women’s basketball team could be the best ever

Arizona Wildcats forward Cate Reese looks to make a pass while being guarded by Tyiona Watkins at McKale Center on Friday, Feb. 14.

Noelle Haro-Gomez

Arizona Wildcats forward Cate Reese looks to make a pass while being guarded by Tyiona Watkins at McKale Center on Friday, Feb. 14.

When the television series of Friday Night Lights premiered, a reviewer said that it was wonderful, not just compared to other things on TV, but like a poem or a painting. Every now and then, you'll come across something that's so fresh and so great, it's absolutely transcendent. I've been a basketball fan for nearly six decades and a Wildcat fan for four, but rarely have I had this kind of reaction. There was the Sean Elliott Final Four team in 1988 and the national championship team in 1997. And now, it's the UA women.

As I sat in McKale Center among thousands of screaming fans and watched the women play, for some reason I couldn't get the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars classic out of my head. When a fellow high-school basketball coach approached me and asked what I thought of the team, I answered, "They bring the funk."

"...Them good girls, straight masterpieces..."

In a very short period of time, in a town known across America as a basketball stronghold, they have become household names. There's Cate, the 6'2" magician around the basket. And Amari, the defensive stopper who also hits the big shot. There's Sam and Helena, Dominque and Lucia, Semaj and Sevval. And always there's Aari.

Make no mistake, Arizona men's basketball still rules in Tucson, but its hold on the community is no longer absolute. The Wildcat women, through grit and style, have carved themselves out a nice (and growing) niche. They have a better record than the men and a much-higher national ranking in the polls. But mostly, they're just so likeable, great student-athletes doing great things and having the time of their lives while doing it.

"...Saturday night and we in the spot..."

Actually, it was a Friday night and McKale Center was electric...boogie woogie woogie. Over 7,000 people had shown up for the game. Just a few years earlier, an attendance figure with four numbers in it was cause for celebration. In 2020, any crowd under 5,000 is considered a disappointment. After the 2018-19 Wildcats made their highly improbable run through the Women's National Invitational Tournament, winning six straight games at McKale in front of crowds that grew larger and more raucous with each victory, UA women's basketball has become a thing. No longer is the top ring of McKale Center blocked off by the large curtains designed to make the lower bowl more intimate (and loud). And no longer does the makeup of those in attendance consist mainly of retirees and snowbirds in town for the winter, looking for a cheap form of entertainment (with a few elementary-school girls sprinkled in). Nowadays, the secret is out and a broad cross-section of Tucson is in.

The UA women were poised to face UCLA, ranked eighth in the country. The Bruins had a 13-game winning streak against Arizona dating back to 2013. Less than four weeks earlier, the Bruins had handed the Wildcats their first loss of the season, a 70-58 setback that started a three-game losing streak for the Cats. Arizona had righted the ship after that skid, winning at Washington and Washington State and then beating Arizona State, sweeping the perennial national power Sun Devils for the first time in forever.

But in came the Bruins, full of swagger and snot, their only loss of the season a stunning two-point upset at the hands of their crosstown rival, USC. While they certainly weren't overlooking the Wildcats, the Bruins had to be figuring that their upcoming showdown with Oregon on St. Valentine's Day would decide the conference championship. The Bruin players walked onto the floor at McKale like, "Uh-huh, we're here. Let's do this."

Instead of doing it, they got done.

The game was close until it started and then the UA just pulled away.

Arizona came out on fire, jumping out to a double-digit lead before first quarter was even half-over. The crowd was ecstatic. What was crazy was that everybody in the building—both teams, both coaches, all the fans—probably expected UCLA to make a run and make a game of it, but no run came and no real game happened.

The Cats led 27-16 after one quarter and 47-32 at the half. Late in the third quarter, the lead had ballooned up to near 30. Coach Adia Barnes, who is a math person (she can square numbers in the 50s in her head) was so overwhelmed by her team's excellence, she had trouble reading the score. "I turned to one of my assistants," she would later recount, "and said 'Are we up 18 or is it 28?'" It was 28.

The beatdown continued to the point where Barnes was able to pull her starters midway through the fourth quarter en route to a 92-66 win. It was the first win over a Top 10 team at McKale in more than a decade. The following week, with a 65-58 overtime victory at Oregon State, Arizona beat a Top 10 team on the road for the first time EVER!

"...don't brag about it, come show me..."

This could be their team motto. They play hard, don't run their mouths, they respect the game, and they win and lose with equal class. It's like they don't belong in the 21st century.

"...say my name, you know who I am..."

UA women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes was named Conference Freshman of the Year and, as a senior, Player of the Year. After playing in the WNBA and overseas, she took the coaching reins at UA in 2016. - NOELLE HARO-GOMEZ
  • Noelle Haro-Gomez
  • UA women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes was named Conference Freshman of the Year and, as a senior, Player of the Year. After playing in the WNBA and overseas, she took the coaching reins at UA in 2016.

In the history of the women's sports at the University of Arizona, Adia Barnes is one of only a handful of athletes who were badass enough to be known by their first names, joining the likes of softballers Laura (Espinosa) and Jennie (Finch), swimmer Lacey (Nymeyer) and Olympic high jumper Brigetta (Barrett).

She did it as an athlete and now she's doing it again as a coach.

At this particular moment, there are two verified and undisputed facts that simply can't be true but absolutely are. The first one is that John Tyler, who was president of the United States in 1841 (not 1941) has two grandsons who are still alive today. That's grandsons, not great-grandsons or great-great-grandsons. Imagine being alive in 2020 and knowing that your grandfather was born three centuries ago, in 1790.

That's crazy, but what's REALLY crazy is that Adia Barnes blocked 1,112 shots as a high-school player. You figure she played around 100 games as a prep, that's an average of 11 blocked shots per game. A lot of high school players—good ones—don't get 11 blocked shots in a season. Some don't get that in a career.

It's hard to find numbers to show just how ridiculous that stat is. The leading shot blocker in the NBA this season, Hassan Whiteside, is averaging three blocks per game. (And remember, an NBA game is 50 percent longer than a high school game.) He averages one block every 10 minutes that he's on the court. Assuming that Barnes played 25 minutes a game (which is probably too high considering subbing out and sitting in late-game blowouts), she would have a block every two minutes. That's one block every two minutes from her first game as a punky freshman to her last game as a dominant senior.

Put another way, a great high school basketball player would have an average stat line of 20 points per game, along with 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and a couple blocked shots. If you were to extrapolate those numbers out to match Barnes' feat, that kid would be averaging 110 points and 55 rebounds per game to go along with 28 assists and 22 steals.

Even at 5' 11" (and 25 years ago), she was undersized for a post player, but when then-UA head coach Joan Bonvicini saw Barnes play in person, there was an immediate offer of a scholarship. In the 1995-96 season, Barnes became the first Arizona player ever to be named Conference Freshman of the Year. As a sophomore, she led the Wildcats to the WNIT championship (a feat she would repeat as a coach) and was named Tournament MVP. The progression would continue as Barnes, then a junior, led her team into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The Cats won their first-round game against Western Kentucky and then lost a nail-biter to the No. 2 seed, Georgia. She capped off her collegiate career by being named the Pac-10 Player of the Year as a senior.

Barnes was then the first Arizona player ever drafted by the WNBA. Definitely undersized for the pro league, she bounced around the WNBA before landing with the Seattle Storm, where she teamed with Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird to lead the Storm to the playoffs in only the third year of the team's existence. Barnes then set off on an international odyssey where she played for pro teams in Italy, Israel, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey.

She returned to the Seattle area, where she got a job as an assistant coach for the then-powerful Washington Huskies women's team. She also began doing radio and TV commentary of Storm games. She was hired by the UA in 2016 and the program transformation began.

All those years as a hard-nosed player, a do-everything assistant coach, and a smooth media talker helped make Adia Barnes what she is today—a force of nature that has Arizona women's basketball in uncharted territory with an upward trajectory and no discernible ceiling.

"...Harlem, Hollywood, Jackson, Mississippi..."

The cohesiveness of the Arizona squad is all the more impressive considering that there is only one player on the entire roster from the state of Arizona (sophomore Bryce Nixon of Arcadia High in Phoenix). Of the other 14 players on the roster, half come from all over the United States while the other half comes from all over the world. Star guard Aari McDonald hails from Fresno, which, to put it kindly, isn't exactly a basketball hotbed. Sam Thomas is from Las Vegas, Dominique McBryde is a Hoosier, and Cate Reese is from Texas.

That entire-country approach is a testament to Adia Barnes' ability as a recruiter, but it's not even half of the story. Barnes considers the whole world to be her recruiting territory. She's got a player from Australia (Tara Manumaleuga), one from Canada (Shaina Pellington), and two from Spain (Lucia Alonso and Helena Pueyo). Mara Mote is from Latvia (which not even Mike Pompeo can find on a map), Sevval Gul is from Turkey, and then there's Birna Benonysdottir from Iceland. I'd like to say that her name is pronounced just like it's spelled, but that's not even close. According to the Media Relations handout, her last name is pronounced Ben-oh-NEESH-dophs-dish. Personally, I can't wait until she's a starter and the TV and radio people are going to have to say her name 20 or 30 times a game.

That's seven players from four different continents (Gul is from the Asian side of Istanbul) and an island nation. But in the Adia Barnes scheme of things, they're all Arizonans now.

"...if we show up, we're gonna' show out, smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy..."

It's never a good idea to judge someone by their appearance and it really shouldn't be done with athletes, who come in all shapes and sizes. However, it's almost certainly true that if the members of the Wildcat women's basketball team were lined up in, say, numerical order of their uniforms and an outsider were asked to pick the best player on the team, it is unlikely that the choice would be Aari McDonald.

She's maybe 5'6" tall. Maybe. She's not tall and she's not thick. If she weren't such a spectacular baller, you could probably see her dressed up like Janelle Monae, working her way through college at some fancy restaurant as a maitre'd, escorting over-rich people to their overpriced seats and getting oversized tips for her services. What a delightful young lady, they would say.

But see her on the court and it becomes evident. Aari McDonald has the face of an angel and the heart of a serial killer. If she gets the ball in space and there's one defender back, Aari's going to score (and probably get fouled in the process).

• Two people back, Aari's going to score.

• Three people back, she's going hard to the hole and something good is going to happen.

• Four or five people back, she's putting her head down and accelerating, looking up only to make eye contact with the opposing coach, giving a look of, "Is this all you have to stop me? Put some more people out here."

While the Wildcats have a wide array of talented players—rebounders and defenders and three-point shooters—McDonald is definitely the engine that powers the express train. She is absolutely fearless, willing to go into the lane against people a head taller than she, knowing that her talent and experience will, far more often than not, lead to a positive outcome. She can shoot the three, she has a mid-range jumper and she's deadly around the basket. Perhaps most impressive is that she rebounds. She'll go into the lane, disappear in the crowd, and then somehow get a shot up that either goes in or somehow ends up back in her hands with a highly unlikely offensive rebound in traffic.

She's almost certain to be a 1st Team All-American this year and she's only a junior.

click to enlarge While the Wildcats have a wide array of talented players, junior Aari McDonald is the engine that powers the women’s basketball team. - NOELLE HARO-GOMEZ
  • Noelle Haro-Gomez
  • While the Wildcats have a wide array of talented players, junior Aari McDonald is the engine that powers the women’s basketball team.

"...Girls hit your hallelujah (whoo!)..."

Another new activitynot old enough to be a tradition, too cool to be called a gimmick—is the beating of the monster-sized drum after home victories. The newly named Player of the Game gets to walk out to midcourt with a drumstick the size of a baseball bat and blast that drum one time for each of the team's victories. The home crowd absolutely loves it, but with the Cats getting into the 20-win range, the POG risks waking up the next day arm weary.

"...got Chucks on..."

Truth be told, they wear Nikes. Nobody has worn Chuck Taylors since before Jerry West became The Logo. But I had to mention this because, at a recent press conference, Aari McDonald's face lit up when she was asked about the new Kyrie Irving shoes the players had just received. She looked like a kid who had asked for one special gift only to go downstairs on Christmas morning to discover that Santa had brought two of them, in different colors...and they came with pancakes!

"...Don't believe me, just watch..."

With the tough part of their regular-season schedule behind them, the Cats are rolling toward the Pac-12 Tournament and the NCAAs after that. There is a very good chance that Arizona will get to play their first two NCAA Tournament games in McKale Center. (The NCAA still allows top-seeded women's teams to serve as hosts in the first two rounds. The men's side discontinued that practice back in the late 1980s; the last men's team to host an NCAA game was Arizona, which lost to UTEP.)

Until then, the Cats have four more regular-season games and four more opportunities to make the case that this is the best Arizona women's basketball team of all time. With each win, the beat goes on. And so does the funk.

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