Arizona Women's Basketball

Arizona Wildcats WNIT Champions Through Tough Defense and Family

Adia Barnes playfully tossed some confetti over the head of her son Matteo amid her celebrating players Saturday after they won the WNIT championship over Northwestern 56-42 in front of a sellout crowd at McKale Center.

Her husband Salvo Coppa, one of Adia’s valuable assistants, was nearby climbing the latter to cut down a piece of the net.

Matteo Coppa, son of Adia Barnes and Salvo Coppa, dances in the confetti during Arizona’s celebration of the WNIT title (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

In a very real way, that moment showed why Arizona won its first postseason tournament since the Wildcats beat Northwestern 23 years ago for the WNIT title.

The buzz from the McKale Center-record crowd of 14,644 added to the moment, making the effort worthwhile toward creating a family culture in Barnes’ third year as coach.

Family atmospheres matter. Good vibes make a difference. Adia Barnes brings out the redeeming values of her players by her healthy interactions with them combined with her X’s and O’s coaching ability.

Arizona celebrates its first postseason title in 23 years (Arizona Athletics photo)

“Say we have a stressful day at class or something like that, we can go to any one of the coaches and they’ll be there for us,” said freshman Cate Reese, who had 13 points and nine rebounds against seasoned senior post player
Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah (who did not make a shot in only two attempts).

“I think that is really important to not only have a coach, but a support system like family,” Reese added. “That’s what she (Barnes) said when she was recruiting me: ‘We’re a family. That’s the culture here.’ That’s really how it is.'”

No other coach in the Pac-12, or the nation for that matter, brings out a sense of worth and belonging from the players like Barnes because of her age (42) and youthful exuberance.

Look at the imprint the late Bobbi Olson made on Lute and his commanding figure with the players. She helped bring a sense of togetherness, a calming realization that roles can be shared and egos better be checked at the door. Bobbi had the final say on recruits based on their character.

Her presence was valuable to bring that closeness to the men’s program that frankly is not at the same level as when she passed away from cancer in 2001.

Arizona’s defensive performance against Northwestern — limiting coach Joe McKeown’s team to 26.5 percent shooting from the field — showed how much they are tuned into their assignments and rotating and feeding off each other’s intensity.

Sam Thomas served notice early emphatically blocking a shot by Northwestern’s top player — sophomore Lindsey Pulliam — that she would have to work for the 19 points she averaged entering the game. Pulliam finished with only 14 making 5 of 19 shots. She did not have an assist but had three of Northwestern’s 18 turnovers.

“It was nice to send a message,” said Thomas, who had 14 blocked shots in the WNIT to reach 50 for the season. “We had a scouting report of what she likes to do. She did the move that she likes to do and I wanted to let her know that you’re not going to isolate me the whole game. It was nice to get that momentum.”

Aari McDonald’s defense — six steals, including four in the first quarter — outshined her offense and she still had 19 points to finish her school-record total of 890 this season. She was selected the WNIT MVP and Reese was a member of the all-tournament team.

PAC-12 SEASON SCORING LEADERS

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“They played hard defense. We thought that was going to be a problem but they really shut us down,” said McKeown, whose team had only 13 made field goals. “Credit to Arizona. They played a great game today, a deserving champion.”

Of the atmosphere Barnes and her coaches and players have created at McKale, McKeown said, “I’ve been in women’s basketball a long time. I’ve been a head coach for 30-some years (33), and the crowd today was tremendous. I think it was great for our players.

“It was great for our players to play in that atmosphere. To have that many people care about our sport, I thought it was a great experience for us.”

Barnes looked down the row of her starters at the press conference table following the game and spoke about her players as if she was a proud mom, talking about their character and work ethic in the classroom.

When asked about the recruiting ramifications of dominating the WNIT and drawing 45,602 at McKale over the six-game run, Barnes looked over at the players sitting by her side and mentioned, “They are pretty cool.”

They are from all over — McDonald from Fresno, Calif.; Reese from Cypress, Texas; Thomas from Las Vegas; Dominique McBryde from Bedford, Ind.; and Tee Tee Starks from Brooklyn Park, Minn.

TOP 10 WNIT ATTENDANCE FIGURES THIS POSTSEASON

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“They all have different connections,” Barnes said of the recruiting perspective, “and they are all really good people. More importantly, how it helps recruiting is, when you have good people, they recruit other good people.

“That’s a part of that culture shift. Players want to play with good players but they also want to play with good people. It’s the feeling they have when they come on campus to see we’re a family. They see what we value, that just attracts good players. That’s the most important part of recruiting.”

Barnes added that her coaching staff does not “take chances with some players who don’t fit this mold … because you don’t have success long-term.”

“These are all really good kids. There’s kids down there (McBryde and Starks) who have perfect GPA’s. They do tons of stuff in the community. That’s why people rally behind them. … They’re good people. For people to get to know them not only as basketball players but as young women, I think they have a lot to offer.”

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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.

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