Third seasons are something special with Arizona basketball.
Fred Snowden coached the Arizona men to their first 20-win season and postseason appearance in 24 years in his third season (1974-75).
Lute Olson coached freshman Sean Elliott — the best player in program history — in his third year (1985-86) and the Wildcats won their first Pac-10 title.
While Sean Miller was not as fortunate in his third year with Arizona, losing in the NIT at home, he had already taken Arizona to the Elite Eight in his second season. And in that third season? A future All-American named Nick Johnson arrived, and T.J. McConnell, in his fourth year with the Philadelphia 76ers, sat on the bench as a transfer from Duquesne.
In women’s hoops, Adia Barnes has followed the same pattern with that third year being the charm to hopefully something better.
“We’re a team you’re not just going to overlook,” Barnes said. “I the past, in the last decade, Arizona’s been a team you want to play twice and you know you’re going to beat.
“That’s why I’m here. I’m here to bring this program back to what it used to be. Is it going to take time? Yes, it’s a process. I’m not here to finish 10th, 11th or 12th (in the Pac-12). I’m not here for, ‘Oh, you beat a ranked opponent.’ I’m not here to not have us in the conversation.”
Arizona stands at 13-2 overall, 3-1 in the Pac-12 after Friday night’s thriller of a win, 60-55 over No. 24 California and All-American center Kristine Anigwe at McKale Center. A crowd of 2,557 was announced but it felt larger and sounded louder than that figure.
Rarely is there a game in which a player goes for 19 points and 20 rebounds, like Anigwe did, and that is lost among the luster of Barnes drawing more and more public support and sophomore guard Aari McDonald becoming to Barnes what Elliott was to Olson.
“I hated it when I was at Washington (as an assistant) and the talk was like, ‘Oh, we’re playing Arizona,'” Barnes said. “I was always kind of offended even though I was a coach at Washington because this is my alma mater. We were good when I was here.
“It’s a special place. We’re doing some special things. Have we arrived? No. But we’re putting the right pieces together.”
McDonald finished with 16 of her 36 points in a pivotal fourth quarter, one in which she made 5 of 6 free throws in the last minute to help Arizona (with its stifling defense) pull away after the game was tied with 1:08 left following an Anigwe layup.
McDonald shot 4 of 5 from the field in the fourth quarter while the rest of the team was 1 of 7. She has three consecutive games with at least 30 points and ranks third nationally averaging 25.4 points a game.
“I mean, it’s good to score 30 points, but I’m not doing it alone,” McDonald said. “I have the help of my teammates and my coaches. They help me get my buckets. Scoring doesn’t really mean nothing. If we need it, I’ll do it, but I’m mostly focused on defense.”
True to Arizona’s form — in which another player steps up at key moments on occasion — that one other field goal in the fourth quarter by a teammate came at a pivotal time when Dominique McBryde converted a 3-point play with 4:19 left to give Arizona a 53-49 lead.
The Wildcats, who shot 17 percent in the second half and still managed to win, had only one field goal by McDonald in a 3-minute span before McBryde’s clutch play.
“She’s an experienced player,” said McDonald of McBryde, a transfer from Purdue. “She knows when to step in. … That bucket was needed. That 3-point play was definitely needed. (Freshman) Cate (Reese) did a good job tonight as well (with 10 points and nine rebounds).
“(Sam) Thomas did a good job (seven points, four rebounds and two steals). Everybody plays their role and did a great job. It was a great team win.”
Generally, third seasons are the first true good read on a coach’s impact because he or she has mostly their own recruits by then.
Joan Bonvicini in her third season of 1993-94 coached Arizona to its first winning season (15-12) in seven years and only the second season above .500 in the program’s 21-year history at that point.
Bonvicini signed Barnes out of Mission Bay Senior High School in San Diego to play for Arizona during that third season. Barnes went on to become Arizona’s first first-team All-American in program history.
Niya Butts also achieved in her third season in 2010-11, coaching the Wildcats to their first 20-win season in five years with a 21-12 mark.
Because of a lack of recruiting success, the bottom fell out. Butts did not have a winning season in her last five years and somehow survived a 5-25 season in 2013-14 before she was let go in 2016.
Barnes then returned to the program as head coach and now she is on a path toward greatness. With her work ethic, keen eye for talent nationally and internationally, charisma and character with parents and athletes during the recruiting process, and her knowledge of basketball, Barnes’ career trajectory is better than that of Butts.
Help is immediately on the way for Arizona and McDonald with four seasoned international players joining the program next season — Latvian guard Mara Mote, Australian guard Tara Manumaleuga, Turkish 6-foot-4 post player Sevval Gul and Icelandic power forward (who can also play the wing) Birna Beonnysdottir.
“As you see we have more depth, and we have a lot more talent next year, (McDonald) will pass a lot more,” Barnes said. “She won’t get the 30 points but she’ll still score a lot.”
Another reason for hope in a season so far with many, Arizona did not become undone because of a poor loss like the 80-64 defeat at Utah on Sunday.
The Wildcats split with Colorado and Utah allowing 147 points in the process.
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Before going on that trip, Arizona upset then-No. 17 ASU at McKale, limiting the Sun Devils to 39 points in a 51-39 win. Arizona’s defense gave up only a phenomenal 49.7 points a game at that point.
“I like the way we have responded after two tough losses,” said Barnes, referring to a school-record 11-game winning streak after losing to Loyola Marymount 66-64 on Nov. 13 at McKale. “Learning how to respond after a loss — that’s your character. How do we respond after getting killed in Utah … how do we respond? That’s our character and that’s what I am most proud of.
“I like how they responded because we’re in a difficult stretch.”
Arizona plays three top 10 teams in their next three games — No. 6 Stanford (13-1, 3-0) on Sunday at noon at McKale, No. 10 Oregon State (13-2, 3-0) at Corvallis, Ore., on Friday, and No. 5 Oregon (14-1, 3-0) next Sunday.
Whereas men’s basketball is struggling in the Pac-12, the women are thriving and the Cardinal, Beavers and Ducks are carrying that standard. They are 40-2 overall and 9-0 in the Pac-12. They are the last remaining teams unbeaten in conference play.
“This stretch will show me where we’re at and what we’re made of, and tonight I saw a little of that but we’re going to see really quick how we respond on Sunday and how we respond on the road,” Barnes said.
“I think we’ve done a really good job (beating) two ranked teams in the first couple of weeks of Pac-12 play that we beat on our home court. The city’s rallied behind us. We have a great fan base right now. This is all exciting.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.