Arizona had just lost its seventh straight game, a 76-47 rout at the hands of rival Arizona State in the 2018 Pac-12 tournament at Seattle when Adia Barnes took a seat with freshman Sam Thomas at the postgame press conference.
The Wildcats’ average margin of defeat was 23.6 points in that seven-game stretch to end the forgettable 2017-18 season in which Barnes’ team finished 6-24.
Barnes was two years into her first head coaching tenure at her alma mater and her record at that point was 20-40. Her 2017-18 team finished 2-14 in the Pac-12.
In her opening statement, Barnes made the remark of the Wildcats looking “like our minds were all on spring break.”
She then said with conviction:
“In the future, our minds won’t be on spring break, I’ll tell you that right now. And we will come to the Pac-12 tournament, and we’ll fight and we’ll compete, and show a lot more heart than we showed here, and that’s a guarantee.”
Barnes, her staff and players have backed up that guarantee.
A spring break was not scheduled this school year at Arizona because of COVID-19. The NCAA tournament will serve as a time for the Wildcats to reap the benefits of their diligence since the lowest point of the Adia Barnes era at Arizona.
The No. 3-seeded Wildcats (16-5) face No. 14 Stony Brook (15-5) today at 11 a.m. in a first-round matchup at San Antonio’s Alamodome. ESPN2 will broadcast the game live with Tiffany Green and Steffi Sorenson calling the action. The game will also be broadcast live on KTUC (1400-AM) with Arizona grad Derrick Palmer doing the play-by-play.
Sitting on the bench that arduous 2017-18 season was Washington transfer Aari McDonald, a freshman starter on the Huskies’ team that reached the Sweet 16 in 2016-17. Playing her final season at Cypress (Texas) Woods High School that year was Cate Reese, Arizona’s first McDonald’s All-American recruit.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Barnes told the reporters in Seattle. “I know that’s cliché, but it’s a process. I came to my alma mater for a reason, and that’s to build a championship program, and I’m doing that, but it takes time.
“I think that I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned to just focus on the bright spots, the small things, and other things will come. Not look too far ahead. But it’s been a hard season. I don’t think in my career I’ve only won two conference games or six games overall, so as a competitor, that’s extremely difficult.”
Under the leadership of McDonald, who blossomed into an All-American and national player of the year candidate the last two seasons, Arizona has lived up to Barnes’ guarantee this way:
— Advancing to the program’s first NCAA tournament since the 2004-05 season.
— Ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll for 34 straight weeks, the longest stretch in school history.
— Ranked in the top 10 in 13 of the 17 polls, which ties a school record.
— Winning 13 conference games for the first time since the 2003-04 season when Arizona shared the Pac-10 title with Stanford.
— Capturing the 2019 WNIT title defeating Northwestern in front of a sold-out McKale Center.
This list could go on and on.
Reese in 2018 was part of a highly-rated recruiting class in the country that included Bryce Nixon, Semaj Smith and Tara Manumaleuga. Nixon transferred after last season and Smith and Manumaleuga have minimal roles this season. Reese earned her second consecutive All-Pac-12 selection as a junior.
Thomas and Marlee Kyles were touted freshmen on the 2017-18 team. Kyles wound up transferring to Colorado State knowing that McDonald was about to become the full-time point guard.
Barnes also mentioned to reporters on that day in Seattle something prophetic about Thomas.
“It’s been really hard having a short bench, and not being able to change games up just because of our lack of depth, but a bright spot is Sam Thomas making the (Pac-12) All-Freshman team, despite her playing out of position (as a power forward instead of a wing),” Barnes said. “Sam having a stellar freshman year, and getting a lot of experience, putting her in tough situations where she’s uncomfortable, where she can grow, that’s definitely a bright spot.”
Thomas has evolved into a two-time Pac-12 All-Defensive Team selection and an All-Pac-12 player this season as a senior. She is the conference’s active leader in career blocked shots and ranks third in Arizona history with 162. She has started all 119 games in her career, second-most in program history.
A Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year recipient this season, she has been a team captain since her freshman season.
When she was a freshman facing the media after that 29-point loss to the Sun Devils, she said, “We didn’t come out with heart as I wanted to.”
Thomas is defined for her heart — her heart for her teammates and coaches, her heart for her effort and her heart for winning.
When Arizona’s NCAA tournament selection was revealed on the jumbotron at McKale Center last week, Thomas was seen on social media yelling, “Hey, Arizona Wildcats, we’re going dancing!”
“There’s an excitement,” Barnes said in a press conference in San Antonio last week. “Everybody wants to be here; that’s what they’ve worked for. And I see it in their eyes. It’s kind of getting more real as the days go on, so I think the players are just really excited.”
A guarantee fulfilled.
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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.