Rarely is a senior honored on Senior Day only to reveal she will take part in another such event next season.
Tee Tee Starks, an Iowa State transfer who has another year of eligibility based on games missed while nursing knee, hip and shoulder injuries, broke the news to coach Adia Barnes during the Senior Day festivities that she will honor her fifth year of eligibility next season.
This was a significant pick-me-up for Barnes, whose team once again came close to upsetting a top 10 before falling 65-60 in double-overtime against No. 9 Oregon State at McKale Center on Sunday.
“It really wasn’t registering,” Barnes said of the moment, standing next to Starks. “For a second, I was like, ‘Why is Tee Tee still standing here?’ because the pictures were done and she just kind of smiling and was kind of like (smiling back).
“We haven’t talked about it much more. We’ve talked about it. I didn’t want to stress her out before our last couple of games. … And then her telling me there, I was like, ‘Wow.’ Really excited because it’s not all about basketball to me.”
Barnes added that Starks’ importance with the program goes beyond game day.
“Culture is everything. We’ve done a tremendous job with this culture,” Barnes said. “She is important not only for her great defense. That’s awesome, and her experience. She’s really important off the court.
“She’s really important for practice. She’s really important in the locker room. She is that person (who says), ‘Stop complaining,’ or you know, ‘You need to work harder.’ She can talk the talk because she walks the walk.”
Barnes, who is about to complete her third season at her alma mater, said it takes six years to build the winning culture she wants to achieve. Arizona is 17-12 overall and 7-11 in the Pac-12 headed into Thursday’s first round game of the Pac-12 Tournament as the No. 8 team in the league against No. 9 USC in Las Vegas. The game starts at 3 p.m. Tucson time.
Starks addressed the question about her return being an indication that Barnes’ program is on the upswing.
“I believe in this team even without me,” Starks said. “I believe in the girls on this team. I believe in these coaches. I believe they can do great things and make some noise nationally.
“These are great players that I play with. I believe in them. I’m just excited to do some good stuff next year. I’m excited to make people into believers. I’m excited to see what we can really accomplish as a team.”
Pac-12 Tournament bracket ⬇️
Starks is averaging 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds but her presence on the court, with her hustle, especially on defense, has far more of an impact than those numbers.
As a fifth-year senior next season — matched with the young talent coming back such as All-American guard Aari McDonald and the recruits arriving — will make her a significant leader for Barnes.
McDonald led all scorers with 23 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists in 48 minutes played against the Beavers. Dominique McBryde had her best game of the season, scoring a season-high 20 points with a career-high four three-pointers. She also had eight rebounds and played all 50 minutes.
As a team, Oregon State held the Wildcats to 30 percent shooting and outrebounded Arizona 57-34.