The Quick Rise of UA Women's Basketball Under Coach Adia Barnes

click to enlarge The Quick Rise of UA Women's Basketball Under Coach Adia Barnes
Mike Mattina / Arizona Athletics

Before last season, the University of Arizona Wildcats’ women’s basketball team had not made the NCAA tournament since before the iPhone had been released. George W. Bush was still president and Twitter was nothing more than the sound a bird makes. Following their Round of 32 loss to Louisiana State in 2005 until the time head coach Adia Barnes arrived for the 2016-2017 campaign, the team had put together just one winning season.

While the world changed around it, the Wildcats struggled to change the fortunes of their program. However, all droughts eventually come to an end. And last year, the 16-year absence of NCAA tournament berths came crashing down for the Wildcats.

In fact, Barnes and her squad did not just end the drought. Like a summer monsoon in Tucson, they drowned the remnants of it away in the desert sand with the roaring excitement of thunder.

In their return to the postseason, the team made an unprecedented run to the NCAA Division I Final Four in San Antonio with marquee wins over several top-tier opponents. As the third seed in the Mercado Regional, they resoundingly beat Texas A&M and Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight respectively to punch their ticket to the team’s first ever Final Four appearance.

Their opponent? A legendary women’s basketball program ranked number one in the nation, led by head coach Geno Auriemma, and featuring one of college hoops’ biggest stars in Paige Bueckers: the University of Connecticutt Huskies. Sure, the line favored the Huskies by 14 points. And sure, UConn was appearing in their record 13th consecutive Final Four to the Wildcats’ one. However, you could not tell any of that when the ball was tipped.

Behind 26 points from Aari McDonald (who would go on to be the third pick in the 2021 WNBA draft), the Wildcats dispatched the Huskies by a 10-point margin to reach their first-ever national championship game. To make the win that much more impressive for the pre-game underdogs, Arizona never even let Huskies lead. 

For a program on the rise, it was a boisterous statement on the national stage. And while the team would later fall agonizingly short of a title—losing by just one point to conference foe Stanford after Aari McDonald’s last second heave bounced off the rim—the Wildcats let everybody know they are a force to be reckoned with. They also put the Pac-12 on notice: there is a new dog in the fight for women’s hoop out West.

Wildcat fans certainly reveled in the blistering rise of the team, and they should continue to rejoice because this program is just getting started. While a loss to second-ranked Stanford last Sunday, Jan. 30, stings for the team, Tucson should not lose hope.

As head coach Adia Barnes noted after the UConn game last season, “We believed. Our team believed. We were going to Bear Down and fight.” That is an apt description for a team that has played with that competitive mentality ever since Barnes’ arrival in Tucson. 

Of course, Barnes is no stranger to success in Tucson. A former Wildcat player herself, she led the team in scoring across four consecutive seasons from 1995 to 1998 and still holds the program record for all-time scoring. Prior to McDonald winning the accolade last season, Barnes was the last Wildcat to earn Conference Player of the Year honors. Not to mention that the team had only seen one Sweet 16 appearance prior to last year: when Barnes scored 30 points to triumph against Virginia in the 1998 March classic. 

Her college success translated to a long-lived professional career spanning more than a decade with teams including the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm of the WNBA and EuroLeague giant UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. After her playing career, it did not take long for her to return to the basketball spotlight. She began her coaching career as an assistant coach at the University of Washington, and then was announced as the new University of Arizona head coach in 2016. 

The Wildcats previous coach, Niya Butts, struggled to gain much momentum during her tenure from 2008 to 2016. Butts finished with a 102-147 record overall, and just a .236 winning percentage in Pac-12 play. While Butts managed one winning season in 2010-2011, her Wildcats quickly lost in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

However, it seems Barnes has picked up her Arizona coaching career where her playing career ended at McKale: in elite fashion. While her first two seasons in Tucson resulted in losing seasons, that can hardly be blamed on her. Converting a program struggling in the bottom of the conference to a top-tier competitor does not happen overnight. What is for certain is that the program has quickly turned around, and Barnes deserves significant credit.

During the 2018-2019 season the Wildcats posted a respectable 24-13 record overall, before making a postseason run that ended with a Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship. The Wildcats continued to improve as they finished with a 24-7 record in the 2019-2020 season, along with a 12-6 record in one of the toughest conferences across collegiate women’s basketball. While the postseason would be canceled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a winning culture had already emerged.

Maybe it was culture that had been missing those 16 sufferable years without a playoff performance. Between Barnes and newfound form on the court, the recruiting success of the program skyrocketed. First, Barnes pulled in the commitment of Sam Thomas in 2017—a four-star forward who chose the program over scholarship offers from Michigan, Northwestern and UNLV. The next year, the Wildcats landed 2018 top-15 recruit Cate Reese. Two years later? Five-star recruit Lauren Ware.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of signing Reese and Ware; they gave coach Barnes the then two highest commits in program history in just a few short years.

It is obvious that a coach alone can not change a team’s trajectory. While they can diagram plays and push hoopers in practice, talent is a key ingredient for any athletic endeavor.

It also helped that the new recruits were ready to build a program. Reese said in 2018 that “Whenever I first came here, Adia said no one’s broken her records yet and that I would be the person to do that. I do have the potential if I work really hard, so I’m just really excited and it really is motivation to push yourself to do better.”

The top-notch recruiting and coaching has clearly paid off, especially with the magical run just a season ago. The Wildcats finished with a 21-6 overall record and placed second in the Pac-12 regular season standings. Plus, they beat their tournament opponents prior to the championship game by a combined score of 340-261.

With that championship appearance under their belt, the Wildcats added yet another tool for their recruiting toolbox. In fact, the incoming group of women are the best in the school’s history. Arizona’s Class of 2022 recruits include two McDonald’s All-Americans in guard Paris Clark and Top 10 forward Maya Nnaji. Clark and Nnaji are also joined by Kailyn Gilbert, a four-star point guard ranked 31st in the nation by ESPN’s HoopGurlz recruiting rankings, and four-star guard Lemyah Hylton.

Barnes has gushed about the incoming class. She noted that Nnaji “is the total package…very versatile and can play a lot of positions and is just a beast on the court.” As for Gilbert? Barnes described her as “a dog…She can play the point or the off guard position, she can shoot the ball, she’s smart and she’s a great passer.” Finally, Barnes complimented Canadian U19 player Hylton as a perfect fit for the program: “She’s a long, athletic slasher who can shoot the three so I think she fits in our system very well.” And there is no doubt Barnes was excited to reverse Clark’s verbal commitment to fellow Pac-12 team UCLA in December.

So, while the program will miss seniors including leading scorer and rebounder Cate Reese, dynamic guard Shaina Pellington, fellow starter Bendu Yeaney, blocks leader Sam Thomas, and Alabama transfer Ariyah Copeland, the team is in good hands with a mix of existing and incoming talent. Assists and steals leader Helena Pueyo is a junior and Lauren Ware is just a sophomore. Both could prove to be great leaders for the Wildcats next season.

Back on the hardwood this season, the Wildcats have been hooping at the highest level. Despite starting the season ranked only number 22 in the country according to the AP, the Wildcats quickly proved they deserved more respect. In their second game of the season, they took on sixth-ranked Louisville and won an overtime thriller behind Reese’s 21 points and Ware’s 10 rebounds. Then the team went on to win their first 11 games, including a three-game run of dominance in the Paradise Jam tournament behind Jam most valuable player Reese.

In recent Pac-12 play, the Wildcats have been maintaining their intensity despite a few road bumps. On Jan. 23, the team battled back from a double-digit deficit in the first half against then Top 25 Colorado Buffaloes for a blowout 75-56 victory. Shaina Pellington displayed every ounce of her athletic talent, scoring from all over the court—at the foul line, at the hoop, and from deep. Pellington went two for two from behind the arc and 10 for 13 overall for a game-leading 28 points. Reese also contributed nine boards and a 23-point performance buoyed by an explosion in the second half on the offensive end. Arizona followed up that win with another double-digit victory, this time on the road at UCLA.

Most recently, the Wildcats played Stanford in a rematch of the National Championship game from a year ago. While Arizona tried to exact revenge for three of their six losses a season ago, their comeback attempt fell short in 6-point defeat.

Despite the loss, the Wildcats carry a 15-3 record into the final month of regular season play and currently sit in fourth place within the conference. They are still ranked inside the national Top 10, currently sitting at No. 8, according to the AP poll.

Barring a total collapse, the team should be a serious competitor for the Pac-12 tournament title—not to mention a tough beat come NCAA tournament time in March amidst their quest for a second consecutive Final Four

Even Stanford knows that. After the game Sunday, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer explained “That’s the kind of game that we’ve been playing with Tennessee and South Carolina. They’re a great team. We could be playing them again in the Pac-12 Tournament. We stay healthy, they get healthy, we’re both going to NCAA Tournament. We could be playing again.”

So, while Tucsonans flocked to McKale Center for the highly touted University of Arizona men’s basketball team’s game against the Arizona State Sun Devils last week, fans should be just as excited for the upcoming games at McKale for the women’s side over the next two weeks. Honestly, they should also be excited for years to come in Tucson.

In short, this team deserves your support. If you want to bear down and catch some of the upcoming games, head to the McKale Center to help the Wildcats pack the house. The team plays Top 25 opponent Oregon this Friday at 8 p.m., with another Pac-12 battle against Oregon State at noon on Feb. 6. The week following, the Wildcats start a back-to-back duel with bitter in-state rival Sun Devils. The first game will be on Friday, Feb. 11, in Tempe, before the second battle later that week at McKale on Feb. 13 with a noon gametime.