The last time Arizona was in the NCAA tournament was on March 22, 2005, when senior guard Dee-Dee Wheeler led ninth-seeded Arizona with 13 points in a 76-43 loss to No. 1 seed LSU in a second-round game in Knoxville, Tenn.
Wheeler is now the director of athletics for the Tucson Unified School District.
The late, great Shawntinice Polk added 10 points with five rebounds against LSU. She sadly passed away suddenly almost six months later, on Sept. 26, 2005, when a pulmonary blood clot lodged in one of her lungs.
Can you name the other starters for that 2004-05 team, which was the last team with a winning record (20-12 overall) under legendary coach Joan Bonvicini? It may jog the memory because women’s basketball at Arizona and elsewhere was just starting to develop a following then.
Natalie Jones, Danielle Adefeso and Jessica Arnold were the other starters on Arizona’s seventh team to make the NCAA tournament field. The Wildcats achieved that many trips to March Madness under Bonvicini in only a nine-year span from 1996-97 to 2004-05.
Back in 2005, Adia Barnes was seven years removed from her Wildcat career and playing professionally in Mersin, Turkey, one season after she tore her ACL and was part of the Seattle Storm’s WNBA championship team.
“That’s crazy. I was playing pro in Turkey of all places,” said Barnes, who played in Europe during the winter and in the WNBA in the summer during her first six years as a pro and then played seven more seasons only overseas.
“If you asked when I was in college if would I play overseas, I would have said, ‘Not for a zillion dollars — not a billion, but a zillion dollars.’ I would have said, ‘No way.’ And then I ended up 13 years overseas. If you would have asked me if I would ever live in Russia or Ukraine or Turkey, I would have said, ‘No way.’ And I was loving it overseas. You couldn’t get me home.”
Barnes, who met her husband Salvo Coppa while playing in Italy, paused.
“Yeah, things have changed a lot over the years.”
Some 490 games after that loss to LSU in the second round in 2005, Arizona is finally back in The Big Dance.
The Wildcats should have made their return last year but COVID-19 got in the way of a first and second round appearance at McKale Center.
Arizona, seeded No. 3 in the Mercado Region of the NCAA tournament, will face No. 14 Stony Brook on Monday at 11 a.m. in a first-round game at San Antonio’s Alamodome.
Arizona’s program has endured a long wait before to get to March Madness.
It took Arizona’s program 595 games to reach its first NCAA tournament appearance from when its first game was played on Feb. 2, 1972, against New Mexico, until the Wildcats faced Western Kentucky in the first round on March 14, 1997 in Athens, Ga.
Other facts about Arizona’s NCAA tournament appearances:
— Arizona’s seniors Trinity Baptiste, Aari McDonald and Sam Thomas were in kindergarten or first grade, 5 to 6 years old, when Arizona last made the NCAA tournament in 2005. Here’s a photo Thomas’ dad Derek Thomas shared of his daughter in 2005. Notice the sweatshirt. Derek Thomas said, “Wildcats for life.”
— Arizona’s youngest freshman Madi Conner, who was a senior at AZ Compass Prep earlier this season, was in diapers at 1 to 2 years old in 2005.
— The number one song in the week of March 22, 2005 was Candy Shop by 50 Cent. The TV show “The Office” debuted on NBC two days later. The top grossing movie at that time was The Ring Two. George W. Bush was close to the outset of his second term as president.
— The current Arizona player with the most NCAA tournament games in her career is … McDonald, who played three games while making it to the Sweet 16 with Washington in the 2017-18 season, a year after Barnes left the Huskies as an assistant coach to take over at her alma mater. McDonald tallied 15 points and seven rebounds in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Montana State and had 18 points, including three 3-pointers against Oklahoma in the second round.
See you in San Antonio 😎 pic.twitter.com/w4kkgWE3gh
— Arizona Women's Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 16, 2021
When asked about what her prior experience in March Madness could mean now, McDonald said, “I would just say just coming in and just sharing my experience with my previous institution and hopefully that rubs off on my teammates. My experience with my other team is what I can bring to the table. Just my leadership, I’m hoping to bring that.”
— Indiana transfer Bendu Yeaney, a junior guard, helped the Hoosiers get to the NCAA Tournament in 2018-19 after she scored in double figures in 20 games, including the two March Madness games she played in. She scored a season-high 17 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Texas and had a double-double against Northern Illinois (17 points and 11 rebounds).
— Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington started in an NCAA tournament first-round game for the Sooners on March 16, 2018, and scored 14 points in their loss to DePaul.
— Barnes advanced to the NCAA tournament in 1997 and 1998 as a junior and senior after reaching the Women’s NIT in 1996. Her March Madness appearances started a four-year run for Bonvicini and the Wildcats, the longest in program history. The 2005 appearance ended a three-year stretch making the NCAA tournament.
Barnes has the distinction of playing for a No. 3-seeded team in the NCAA tournament in 1997-98 and now coaching her alma mater’s second No. 3 team. None of the other six Wildcat teams in March Madness have been seeded higher.
“It’s funny, I didn’t even remember we were a No. 3 seed (in 1998) … because it’s been so long, you know, you forget,” Barnes said. “We’ve come a long way. When I took the job (in 2016), we were like a (No.) 300 RPI and we were always chosen 11th or 12th in the conference.
“It’s awesome to have been there as a player and now to do it as a coach. I think a lot of people don’t have success with their alma mater. It’s not easy. When we were good when I was a player, there’s a lot of comparisons and Joan’s incredible. But then to come here and (hear) ‘Oh, Joan went to this many tournaments.’ It’s like, ‘Okay, well, give us some time, you know?’ I think it’s rewarding to do it because our hard work is paying off.”
A few of Arizona’s athletes before her coached their alma mater to the postseason. Jerry Stitt coached the baseball team to the 1998 NCAA regionals. Women’s golf coach Laura Ianello won the 2000 NCAA championship as a player and coached the Wildcats to the 2018 national championship. Augie Busch has coached individual NCAA champions as Arizona’s swimming and diving coach the last four years.
“I’m happy to be at Arizona,” Barnes said. “I’m happy to be the head coach here. I’m proud and more proud because my heart is here. This is where everything started for me, so obviously it means more.
“I bleed red and blue. There’s no better feeling than to do it where it all started for me as a 17-year-old.”
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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.