A reporter at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas asked Aari McDonald and Cate Reese what made them decide to attend Arizona before Adia Barnes built the program to what it is today — nationally ranked and in position to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Barnes made it a point during the press conference to note that McDonald and Reese bought into her program two to three years ago when they both “could have gone anywhere in the country.”
Making HER-STORY pic.twitter.com/tZedJE5vJP
“(McDonald) was at Washington. She decided to take a chance on Arizona. Remember at Arizona I was selling a dream. We hadn’t been successful in a long time,” Barnes said. ” She wanted to come here and go to war with me, and she did that, and has helped build this program. And then she’s helped along people like Cate.
“Cate was our first McDonald’s All-American. She could have gone anywhere in the country. She chose to come to Arizona. Remember, that game she was watching us (on a recruiting visit), embarrassingly enough, we won six games (in 2017-18). She decided to come here, do something special. They wanted to come here and work and leave their legacy, and they both did that. They’re the people behind that. They’re the people that started the foundation, and we just turned into a good team. “
McDonald said of her reason for joining Arizona, transferring from what was then a nationally prominent Washington program: “I would say that Coach Barnes is relational. I knew her since my sophomore year of high school (in Fresno). I knew picking Arizona would be a perfect place. It felt like home away from home. It is just another family.”
Reese came to Arizona from Cypress, Texas, a state that has Baylor and Texas. Wouldn’t those programs want her now? An All-Pac-12 selection that scored a career-high 30 points in the win over Cal today in the Pac-12 quarterfinal game?
“I would say she talked to us about leaving a legacy and building the foundation for what we’re doing right now,” Reese said of Barnes’ recruiting pitch.
“I’m just grateful that I made the right decision. I never regretted my decision coming to Arizona. And, I mean, what Aari said, she really — she loves building relationships with her players, and it’s just the culture here is unlike any other. I’m just happy that I made it here and that, you know, we’re leaving our legacies right now.”
Oregon Coach Kelly Graves Hypes Matchup with Arizona
Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who was selected the Pac-12 Coach of the Year ahead of Adia Barnes, literally tried to hype tomorrow’s semifinal matchup with 13th-ranked Arizona during an interview with the Pac-12 Network.
“I’m expecting a battle tomorrow. It’s going to be a heck of a game. Arizona … I thought they looked good tonight, man. They looked gooood,” he said. “You noticed what I’m doing? Trying to get the ratings up for tomorrow’s game. It’s going to be two good teams.”
The fourth-seeded Wildcats (24-6) will play No. 1 Oregon (29-2) at 7 p.m. in one of the Pac-12 tournament semifinal games. The Ducks swept Arizona during the regular season, including a 71-64 win at McKale Center in which the game was in doubt going into the last minute.
“We wanna make sure we’re playing the right way and playing hard.” 👏@GoDucksKG goes into detail about how @OregonWBB played in its win over Utah and how the Ducks are gearing up for tomorrow’s game against No. 4 seed Arizona. ➡️ https://t.co/ZhZuI5ezsa pic.twitter.com/PcC452NzHL
“We set a high bar for ourselves,” said Graves, who was not happy with his team’s 14 turnovers in a 79-59 win over No. 8 Utah today. “We want to make sure we’re playing the right way and playing hard.
“If we get this kind of effort and execution, we go home tomorrow. (The Wildcats) are a great team. They are. Aari is one of the premier players. She can go off for 30 at any time. Cate Reese … Adia’s done such a nice job there and they focus defensively. They guard you. We have to be a lot sharper offensively.”
Other than its turnover issues, including six by Pac-12 Player of the Year Sabrina Ionescu, third-ranked Oregon made 50 percent of its shots, 52.2 percent from 3-point range with 12 made from that far, had 20 assists, outrebounded Utah and held the Utes to 40 percent shooting (including 5 of 18 from beyond the arc) and forced them into 16 turnovers.
And Graves still was upset about the effort …
Beating Cal Bodes Well for Arizona’s NCAA Tournament Hosting Bid
Barnes tried to shield her team from the pressure of making a win over Cal a “must-win” scenario for Arizona to clinch hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament.
With the win, Arizona is all but assured to host those opening rounds March 20-23. The Wildcats were revealed as the No. 14 team overall, a No. 4 seed, by the NCAA tournament selection committee Monday. A loss to Cal could have been devastating because of the Golden Bears’ low power rating at 12-19 overall. Now, playing Oregon, a projected No. 1 seed in March Madness, can only benefit Arizona win or lose.
“I didn’t think of this game as a must-win game, but it pretty much was for a lot of reasons because of that,” Barnes said of the hosting scenario. “I think that for us, our program hasn’t gone to the tournament in 15 years. We haven’t hosted since 2006. It says a lot.
“If you see our city and how we’re the second-best attendance in the Pac-12 and we will probably … I don’t want to be cocky, I don’t want to jinx myself, but we have a good chance of selling out McKale. We’re one of the few venues in the country that can bring 15,000 people to a women’s basketball game. I think we have a strong chance of doing that. With a crowd like that, I think we have a lot of momentum when we play at home. We could be in a great situation.”
Two wins in those rounds would place Arizona in the Sweet 16 for only the third time in program history. Never have the Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight.
Barnes: “Tweet at me” if more talent in Las Vegas like Sam Thomas
Sam Thomas — whom Barnes calls her team’s “unsung hero” — is back at home in Las Vegas, where she starred for Centennial High School before also being swayed to Arizona by Barnes three years ago.
Barnes acknowledged that Arizona “is not successful without Sam Thomas.”
“She can have zero points, and she still helps us win in every single way,” Barnes said. “She’s the most underrated defender. You know, Aari, (Defensive) Player of the Year, Sam, All-Defensive Team. Sam locks down our players. She continues to block shots. She’s the only one allowed on the team to block jump shots because she can do it. That’s like our secret rule.
“She’s consistent. She’s one of our smartest players. She knows where to be at all times, on offense and defense. The offense runs through her. I just can’t say enough about Sam. I’m just glad this year people started to recognize, because she’s been doing this stuff for thee years. I’m glad people woke up. She’s always done this.”
Thomas had eight points, four rebounds, four assists, one steal and one blocked shot against Cal. She is fifth in program history with 136 blocked shots.
“If you can find some other players in Vegas, please be sure to let me know because I would love having more Sam Thomases,” Barnes said. “You got to Tweet at me. You know I like social media.”
Barnes: Oregon has pressure to win as top seed
Barnes is hoping her team is loose with nothing to lose going against a loaded Oregon team with Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sebally that might feel the pressure to keep winning as a favorite heading into the NCAA tourament.
“You know, Oregon has the pressure to win the Pac-12 tournament,” Barnes said. “We don’t have the pressure to win the Pac-12 tournament. Oregon has the pressure as the higher seed to beat the lower seeds. We don’t have that pressure.
“So we go into the game with zero pressure. And I’ll tell you, it is hard to play teams with zero pressure. We faced that last Sunday, and Cal had no pressure coming to Arizona, beat us at our place on Senior Day. … We have nothing to lose. We go fight. We play the way we fought. And it is hard to beat a team statistically three times in one year.
“So for us, we’re going to have fun. We’re going to play basketball and try to win. If we don’t win, our season is not over. It doesn’t matter. I think that’s our take on it. We know they’re a very good team.”
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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.