Adia Barnes has been here before, and she is hoping for the positive ramifications of a WNIT appearance to come to fruition again.
She was at Amarillo, Texas, in 1996 as a sophomore forward with the Arizona Wildcats and coach Joan Bonvicini, winning three straight games in three days to claim the WNIT crown. Barnes was the MVP and playmaker Brenda Pantoja, now an NCAA referee, had 13 assists in the championship over Northwestern.
“Brenda used to give me the ball all of the time,” Barnes said with a laugh.
Fast forward 23 years and Barnes is coaching the Wildcats in the WNIT, which is much different than what it was back then. The field is 64 teams, unlike the eight in Amarillo, and Arizona can play all six games at McKale Center en route to the title if the Wildcats keep winning and fans turn out.
The challenge for that goal starts Thursday at 6:30 p.m. against Idaho State — a team Arizona beat 71-46 in the season opener back in early November.
Of that 1996 WNIT title, Barnes said, “I remember that being the change, the pivotal point in Arizona basketball. We were a young team. There was seven freshmen from California, so I think it is very similar to how we are now.
“Hopefully we can repeat that and win it all again and then I think next year is the next step.”
Barnes was one of nine sophomores and freshmen on that team. Pantoja and fellow senior Andrea Constand were the only upperclassmen along with junior Jacqueline Clark.
Two years later, with Barnes one of six seniors on the team, Arizona was a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and went to the Sweet 16, where it was beaten by coach Geno Auriemma and UConn.
Arizona’s All-American candidate Aari McDonald, a sophomore transfer from Washington, is one of six sophomores and freshmen on this year’s roster.
“To still play and have a chance to be successful in the WNIT against some really good teams, we’re excited,” Barnes said. “Long term benefits vs. being in the NCAAs for us as a young team is the chance to play more games.
“Instead being in one or two games (in the NCAA tournament) as a low seed, for us having a chance to possibly play six games, or three, four or five, I think it just gives us more experience in postseason play. So long-term, it will be more beneficial. Also, just having a taste of success and being successful, hopefully, the next year we are hungry and the next step is the NCAA tournament.”
As it is, Arizona is ready to devour the postseason, without an appearance since losing in the first round of the WNIT at Utah State in 2011.
"I'm hoping people come out & support us (in the WNIT). I hope we can host a lot more games here." — Adia Barnes. A school hosts each round in WNIT. Barnes hopeful fan turnout/winning can net 6 more games at McKale, starting Thursday in first round vs. Idaho State at 6:30 p.m. pic.twitter.com/u1pYOTbuJP
Arizona (18-13) has an RPI of No. 81, which took them out of on-the-bubble status for the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats were 2-9 against the six Pac-12 teams in the RPI top 50 — No. 4 Stanford, No. 5 Oregon, No. 23 Arizona State, No. 24 Oregon State, No. 35 UCLA and No. 42 California.
But three of those losses were beyond regulation, losing in triple-overtime to UCLA, double-overtime to Oregon State and overtime at Cal. The Wildcats also lost by two points at Stanford.
They were that close to having quality wins and boosting their RPI well within range to make the NCAA tournament.
“I was a little disappointed at first, especially when the brackets got released (prematurely by ESPN before the selection show),” McDonald said. “We’re just happy to play in the WNIT as well and take this program to place it has never been, or haven’t been in years. We’re just happy to compete and keep playing.”
Asked All-American candidate Aari McDonald what is it about Adia Barnes that makes her good recruiter. Barnes recruited McDonald and legendary Kelsey Plum. McDonald mentioned Barnes' personality, being "approachable." Barnes' demeanor off court drew McDonald to play for Barnes/UA pic.twitter.com/J0U5ygceUz
Another barometer of her program Barnes wants to gauge — in her third year as the head coach — is how the fans respond at McKale Center for the WNIT.
She has mentioned that having at least 5,000 fans at Thursday night’s game is a realistic goal.
In 16 home games during the regular season, Arizona drew an average of 2,203 fans — the highest average attendance since 2004-05 when the Wildcats averaged 2,573 fans a game. The 5,006 that attended Arizona’s 51-39 win over ASU on Dec. 30 was a season high.
The last time Arizona hosted a postseason game was during the 2001 WNIT when Arizona beat Pepperdine 85-65. Only 1,108 attended that game, won by Arizona 85-65, and the coverage did not make the front page of The Arizona Daily Star’s sports section.
The Arizona men’s first round game against Eastern Illinois in the NCAA tournament that year — when they eventually advanced to the NCAA title game against Duke — dominated the coverage that day. Bonvicini’s team, with Reshea Bristol, Veranda James and Elizabeth Pinckney, were shipped out to Albuquerque for the next game and lost to New Mexico 75-62
Barnes’ team this year has a different feel, with the program on the rise again with McDonald leading the way. No scheduling conflict with men’s team exists with Sean Miller’s team not in the postseason.
Barnes exited the press conference today joking that she hoped all the media there attends Thursday’s game and brings a group of people with them.
When asked what it would mean to her to get at least 5,000 fans for Thursday’s game and potentially beyond in the WNIT, Barnes said, “It would mean a lot because I think our lower bowl is a little under 5,000. I mean, they’re $10 tickets. … We need to sell them. There’s not a lot going on this weekend in Tucson. I’m hoping that people come out and support us.
“It means a lot because if we can host the WNIT throughout, it will be very beneficial for us.”
Arizona’s players are observing the amount of fans who come out and support them.
“We’re hoping we get a big turnout, because it’s the first time in eight years (since Arizona has played in the postseason),” sophomore forward Sam Thomas said. “We’re just really trying to get the fan base back out again. They thought our last game (in the regular season against Oregon State) would be the last time they saw us for this year, but we’re excited to come back again.”
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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.