Arizona Women's Basketball

Cat Fight: Top Five Storylines of Arizona’s Matchup with Northwestern in WNIT Title Game

A beautiful day in Tucson might be even more blissful indoors for the Wildcats — Arizona or Northwestern — when the teams meet in the WNIT championship game at McKale Center.

Tipoff is at high noon.

The following are the top five storylines, at least from one person’s perspective, for today’s game between Arizona (23-13) and Northwestern (21-14):

No. 5: Game has Two of Top Postseason Performers in Nation

The matchup between Arizona guard Aari McDonald and her counterpart at Northwestern, Lindsey Pulliam, in the WNIT championship game features two of the best postseason performers in the nation. That’s including the NCAA tournament.

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Heading into the NCAA Final Four games Friday night, McDonald was the third highest scorer of the postseason at 19.4 points a game, trailing Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (25.3) and Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu (22.3). Pulliam was fourth at 19.2 points a game.

McDonald, who is third nationally averaging 24.2 points a game in Arizona’s 36 games this season, is playing to form. Pulliam is averaging only 16.6 points in 35 games.

Pac-12 Season Scoring Leaders

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“I work on all the time just being confident,” Pulliam told the Daily Northwestern. “Now I’m stepping up in the big moments.”

Pulliam, a sophomore, had 16 points in the WNIT Final Four at James Madison on Wednesday, including two free throws with 20 seconds left in the 74-69 win.

Northwestern senior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah from Nigeria is another top player averaging a double-double with 11.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. She achieved her 19th double-double on the season in the WNIT semifinal win at James Madison.

Sounds like another challenge freshman McDonald’s All-American Cate Reese will be charged and ready to attack if the postseason is any indication. She is shooting 60 percent from the field and averaging almost 15 points per game in her last seven games (stretching to the Pac-12 tournament).

No. 4: Game is Rematch of 1996 WNIT Championship

The format is a lot different now and the WNIT is not the same entity than it was 23 years ago when Arizona defeated Northwestern in the title game at Amarillo, Texas.

Back then, only eight teams were involved and the tournament was played in three straight days. Now, the WNIT has 64 teams and all the games are played at arenas of schools who bid to host each round.

Arizona topped Northwestern 79-66 in the 1996 title game, completing a 12-0 record against non-conference opponents that season under Joan Bonvicini. Arizona was 22-8 overall.

“The sweetest thing, honestly, was cutting down the nets,” Bonvicini told The Arizona Daily Star after the win over Northwestern. “We’re going to do it again in the future. When, I don’t know.”

How about 23 years later? That could very well happen on the McKale Center court Saturday for the first time since that mini-postseason run.

Adia Barnes was the WNIT MVP back then. She had 65 points on 25-of-43 shooting from the field in the three wins over Western Kentucky, Arkansas and Northwestern.

Brenda Pantoja, the nation’s leader in assists that season, had 13 in the WNIT title game. She is now a referee. She worked the previous two NCAA Final Fours.

No. 3: National Television (Recruiting) Audience Will Watch the Euphoria

The CBS Sports Network will show the nation what a packed arena of more than 14,000 looks like for a women’s basketball game.

The recruiting dividends should be impactful for Barnes both nationally and internationally. That goes beyond Barnes and her staff informing prospects to tune in to the game. That includes budding players watching on their own and becoming fascinated with Arizona’s program.

It will be a two-hour free marketing tool for Barnes. Other than winning the championship, high on her priority list certainly is wanting players in middle school and older to come away saying, “I want to play there.”

No. 2: Chance to Cut Down the Nets

Barnes said Friday cutting down the nets has happened only two or three times in her career, including the 1996 WNIT title. The sound of her voice made it seem she is yearning for that opportunity to stand atop the ladder and cut the final strand before facing the raucous crowd.

That priceless moment could happen Saturday.

Barnes also had the opportunity to cut down the nets in 2016 as an assistant coach when Washington won the Lexington (Ky.) Regional Final and reached the Final Four. Also, in 2004, she was a member of the WNBA championship team Seattle Storm.

Arizona assistant Morgan Valley, who was part of the staff at Washington with Barnes, is accustomed to the net-cutting ceremony. She won three NCAA championships from 2000-2004 with Connecticut and coach Geno Auriemma.

Valley is evidence part of a winning culture begets winning elsewhere.

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“Morgan Valley is one of the best young assistant coaches in the country,” Auriemma is quoted as saying in her bio released by Arizona. “Her knowledge of the game, loyalty and work ethic will be a great asset to Adia as the Wildcats continue their rise to national prominence.”

Said All-American Kelsey Plum, one of the Pac-12 greats from Washington:
“I’ve been playing basketball my entire life and have never seen anyone who works harder or is more passionate and dedicated to the game as coach Valley. For me personally, Morgan is a mentor and someone I look up to as a woman. I couldn’t think of anyone better fit to help create a winning culture at Arizona.”

Of course, winning a game on the road, in front of a sellout crowd can also be special for Northwestern. Not often does a team cut down the nets as visitors.

Northwestern will play its fourth game on the road in the WNIT, which makes coach Joe McKeown believe his team will be prepared for the monumental task ahead at McKale.

“We’ve been battle-tested for sure,” McKeown told the Chicago Daily Herald. “We’ve spent so much time together, on buses, in the hotels, traveling all around. And we’ve had some tough games against teams that really did a great job of getting fans out. Our games at Toledo (1,879) and West Virginia (1,314) had nice crowds. It’s been good for our kids and their souls.

“I think our kids have shown a lot of resolve to win this thing.”

No. 1: Build a Winner and They Will Come

Through the first five games of the WNIT, Arizona has drawn 30,958 at McKale Center. A sellout of approximately 14,500 on Saturday would make that figure about 45,500. Over six games, that’s an average of 7,583.

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Barnes can certainly live with that number for an entire season at Arizona.

Oregon, which made its first Final Four, averaged 7,148 fans a game this season.

Drawing 45,500 is more than what 300 Division I teams had come through the turnstile this entire season, according to a tweet by Arizona media relations director Matt Ensor.

Indiana averaged 3,920 fans a game this season after winning the WNIT championship over Virginia Tech last year in front of a crowd of 13,007.

In the Hoosiers’ six-game run at home in the WNIT last season, they drew 37,624. That boosted their season average to 4,102. The year prior (2016-17), they averaged 2,955.

Arizona is averaging 3,025 fans a game thanks to the boost from the WNIT. Last season, in a 6-24 down year, the Wildcats averaged 1,933 fans a game. Look for Barnes’ operation to at least double that mark next season with the foundation laid in this captivating postseason run.

2019 WNIT RESULTS AND SCHEDULES

AllSportsTucson.com

Access full bracket at this link.

Arizona’s Quad

FIRST ROUND

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Quad 2

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Quad 3
Opposite of Arizona

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Quad 4
Opposite of Arizona

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QUARTERFINAL

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SEMIFINAL

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CHAMPIONSHIP

Saturday

Northwestern at Arizona, noon


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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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