In a surreal moment, Arizona’s Hall of Fame coach Joan Bonvicini sat among the small group of media at the postgame press conference today and asked questions of her former player Adia Barnes.
Bonvicini, representing the Pac-12 Networks at the game along with broadcaster Cindy Brunson, set the standard, going 287-223 in her 17 years at Arizona, which included a Pac-10 title in 2003-04. She coached Arizona to the Sweet 16 in 1997-98 when Barnes was a senior.
Joan Bonvicini asks Adia Barnes how she has improved as a coach. pic.twitter.com/dwwMd6761o
Knowing the depths from when Arizona women’s basketball started in 1972-73, what Bonvicini did with the Wildcats was legendary. Before she was hired in 1991, the school had not experienced a 20-win season and had losing seasons in 15 out of 19 years.
Bonvicini had eight 20-win seasons and enjoyed a 10-year run (from 1995-96 to 2004-05) in the Pac-10 without a losing record.
After the 61-42 win over UC Santa Barbara today, completing an 11-0 run through the non-conference schedule, Barnes was asked by Bonvicini how she has improved as a coach since taking over the program in 2016-17.
Barnes is under a major rebuild similar to what Bonvicini endured early in her career taking over a program that had seven losing seasons in eight years under previous coach Niya Butts.
Barnes mentioned her most significant growth as a coach is not being so rigid with the players, understanding when to take the foot off the gas pedal during finals, for example. She says she also consults with players during a timeout to gauge their opinion on the right type of defense to run.
“Trusting the players,” Barnes answered. “Trust in them. Trust they know what they’re doing.”
The same can be said of Barnes by Tucsonans. They trust in her. They trust in the value she brings to the program with her effervescent personality. She is a marketing director’s dream.
Through Barnes’ personality and use of social media, she helped spur the growing crowds at McKale in the historic WNIT run to a title last March and April, which ultimately led to a sellout of 14,644 fans — a hard-to-beat Pac-12 record — in the championship game against Northwestern.
This season, Barnes and the marketing department came up with the “Bang the Drum” exhibition after wins at McKale with a player banging a huge drum that significantly displays the program’s “Made for It” logo. The player bangs the drum the amount of times Arizona has won.
With the Wildcats off to a school-record 11-0 record, the fan-favorite of the win over UC Santa Barbara — 6-foot-6 center Samaj Smith — was given the opportunity to bang the drum 11 times. The fans chanted each time Smith banged the drum with corresponding number. That was loud but not louder than when Smith nailed a 3-pointer from the baseline in the second half in a no-don’t-shoot to great-shot moment.
These are fun times for the once-moribund program. The heart is beating and the laughs are coming the way they were during the Gumby days early in the Lute Olson era when Arizona was far off the national map of college basketball powers.
Aari McDonald, who had 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists today, and Sam Thomas, who had 11 points, including three on a long-range 3-pointer that would make Reggie Miller envious, showed up to the press conference with glitter on their faces from a locker room celebration for going unbeaten in the non-conference — another historic feat by Barnes and the program.
“It’s totally different,” McDonald said when asked to compare the fan support from when she came to Tucson as a transfer from Washington in the 2017-18 season, when she sat per NCAA transfer rules.
“There was barely like 40, 50 people here,” she added with a laugh. “Now, it’s like, ‘Wow, you guys are supporting us like this?'”
Adia Barnes has said great deal of getting players with right type of personalities. None better in that regard than Aari McDonald and Sam Thomas. Thomas laughs about her NBA-range 3-pointer and McDonald talks about her unintentional assist to 6-6 center Samaj Smith for the 3. pic.twitter.com/ds7R2FRoVn
Despite it being a game at 1 p.m. today on the last weekend of shopping before Christmas, a crowd of 4,498 showed up at McKale Center.
You win, you get ranked, you have spunk, you draw crowds.
Arizona, with the nation’s longest winning streak of 17 games dating to last season, will make its fifth straight appearance in the AP Top 25 when the new rankings are released Monday. The Wildcats, ranked No. 18, have experienced only three other seasons with that kind of staying power, all during Bonvicini’s glory years — 1997-98 (18 appearances), 1999-2000 (19) and 2002-03 (15).
Adia Barnes said she can see Arizona getting at least 10,000 fans at games for some anticipated Pac-12 games. Who can doubt her on that? Nobody. Not with what she and her players have done and how Tucson has responded in her fourth year as coach. pic.twitter.com/uaxgYiRDvc
With how Arizona is on the rise, Barnes said opposing coaches are not as eager to get on the phone and call her about arranging a home-and-home series.
“People don’t want to come to Tucson to play and I love that because they (the fans) are our sixth man,” Barnes said pointing toward the McKale court. “I think that we’re really going to have 10,000 people some games, and I think it’s going to be a hard environment to play.”
Perhaps knowing today’s game is the last before leaving town to visit families for Christmas, Arizona came out sluggish against UC Santa Barbara. They finally awoke near the end of the second quarter, scoring 10 unanswered points, to propel them to the victory.
Arizona trailed 23-19 with 4:27 left in the second quarter before going into overdrive against the Gauchos (4-8).
McDonald, an All-American who is to Barnes what Sean Elliott was to Olson at the outset of their coaching careers in Tucson, made two sets of two free throws in the 10-0 run that gave Arizona a 29-23 halftime lead. Lucia Alonso, Thomas and burgeoning sophomore forward Cate Reese also scored in the game-turning run.
The Wildcats, who finished with only four turnovers after having 24 in the previous game nine days ago against Tennessee State, pulled away with an 11-2 run to start the second half. The four turnovers ties a school record achieved three times previously including a double-overtime loss against Oregon State last March.
Arizona outscored UCSB 20-5 in points-off-turnovers, forcing the Gauchos into 17 turnovers while compiling 12 steals. The Gauchos went the entire game without achieving a steal.
Thomas finished with 11 points while Smith had nine points and six rebounds.
Smith’s 3-pointer was her first this season and only the third of her career. She made 4 of 5 shots from the field.
Adia Barnes talks about now heading into playing in the toughest conference in the nation, the Pac-12. pic.twitter.com/X04C55j3Bk
The Wildcats return to Tucson the day after Christmas for an afternoon practice. They travel to ASU three days later to begin an arduous trek through the Pac-12, which includes No. 1 Stanford, No. 3 Oregon, No. 4 Oregon State and No. 10 UCLA. The Sun Devils have been ranked this year. Colorado is unbeaten. USC is 7-3.
“The top six, seven (of the conference) are very hard,” Barnes said. “ASU is a top 20 team. They aren’t ranked now but they are a top 20 team. Every weekend we’re going to play very tough competition.”
She mentioned her team has unfinished business after losing last year in triple-overtime to UCLA, double-overtime to Oregon State and at the buzzer at Stanford.
“We’re a little bit better, but so is everybody else. That’s a bad thing,” she said with a laugh, not a dreadful tone.
Santa’s on the way, but the fun does not end there.
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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.