Before he and his wife Regina departed for Indianapolis on Sunday morning to watch Alabama play UCLA in the Sweet 16, former Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne communicated via text message about one of his most significant hires — attracting Adia Barnes back to her alma mater in 2016 when she was an assistant at Washington.
“Regina and I watched the game last night (against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16) and were very excited for Adia, the team, the department and all of the UofA fans!” mentioned Byrne, who was the athletic director at Arizona from 2010 to 2017 before taking over the same position at Alabama.
“She has done an amazing job and very proud of the leadership she has shown. When we sat down to talk about the job for the first time, in a restaurant in Seattle, I was blown away with her vision and plans for the program. So glad to see the success.”
After Arizona’s 74-59 win over No. 2 seed Texas A&M on Saturday night at San Antonio, propelling the Wildcats to their first Elite Eight appearance, Barnes reiterated that when she took the job with the Wildcats it was met with a lot of skepticism.
“When I took the job, it was a bad job; everybody said don’t take it,” Barnes said. “I don’t know if anybody said, ‘Take the job.’ All my mentors, friends, legends in the game, said, ‘Don’t take it, it’s a bad job. You can’t win. It’s hard to recruit there.’
“We did it. We were like 300 in the RPI (when she was hired). Just to turn it around and be doing something special, going to the Elite Eight when no one would have thought … I’m just so proud.”
Barnes was 20-40 in her first two seasons after taking over a program that had losing seasons 10 out of the 11 previous years. She is 67-25 since.
Yearning for Yeaney
Barnes finally got her wish last March attracting guard Bendu Yeaney to Arizona after Yeaney put her name into the transfer portal following two seasons at Indiana.
Yeaney and third-seeded Arizona (19-5) will play No. 4 Indiana (21-5) in the Mercado Regional final at 6 p.m. on Monday on ESPN. Both programs are in the Elite Eight for the first time.
Barnes recruited Yeaney when Barnes was a Washington assistant. She attempted to sign Yeaney after becoming the head coach.
Yeaney, from Portland, Ore., opted for the Hoosiers after a recruiting visit to Arizona, which was a hard sell for Barnes because of the program’s unsuccessful stature at that time.
“I always tell her she dumped me the first time and then she came back to me,” Barnes said. “I’ve known her since she was in the eighth grade. I’ve watched her.
“I’m a big relationship person and I had a relationship with her from before and I knew her. I knew her characteristics and work ethic. I knew that she can help us, so it was amazing getting her back. She has helped us tremendously.”
Indiana coach Teri Moren, when asked about Yeaney on Sunday morning, did not lament about losing her former guard who was instrumental as a freshman in Indiana’s run to the WNIT title in 2017-18.
“Well, no messages. I mean, we’re in a bubble. The 32 of us have stuck pretty closely together,” Moren said when asked of any exchanges between Yeaney and her or her players. “It’s just going to be another game for us. It doesn’t matter who’s over there on the sideline. It’s about my kids and those that are wearing ‘Indiana’ across their chest.
“There’s no emotional connection to have Bendu on the Arizona side. I mean, we’re focused on how we can be. it’s not Indiana against Bendu, it’s Indiana against Arizona. That’s what our focus is.”
Yeaney had 14 points when Indiana beat Virginia Tech 65-57 for the 2018 WNIT title.
“What a privilege it was for her to be part of that WNIT run amongst some really good players,” Moren said when asked about how instrumental Yeaney was to the Hoosiers that season and the following year when she helped Indiana get to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Yeaney was asked Saturday after the win over Texas A&M about facing her former team.
“This is another game,” Yeaney said. “I know that’s my old school and I might have some old teammates on there but we’re just gonna take it as another game. We’re trying to fight for a Final Four spot so that’s all it is.”
Aari McDonald faced a similar situation after transferring from Washington and then having to face the Huskies in Pac-12 games.
“I’ll just let her know it’s gonna be a war (facing her former school),” McDonald said. “There’s no easy baskets. It’s gonna be a physical game. You just have to play your game and don’t try to do too much, but you know with adrenaline, you feel like, ‘I gotta make a play. I gotta do something big.’
“You just have to play your game. Just let the game come to you, trust in your abilities and trust your teammates.”
Barnes accustomed to little or no sleep
By the time Barnes left the Alamodome for Arizona’s team hotel on Saturday night, it was after 11 p.m. Then came a meeting with her coaching staff, including her husband Salvo Coppa, followed by making sure her infant daughter Capri and 5-year-old son Matteo were put to bed, and then sifting through social media and the countless congratulatory text messages.
Barnes and her team awoke early Sunday morning for breakfast and a meeting. She and McDonald attended a press conference through Zoom at 10 a.m., Texas time.
“It’s funny, I don’t get a lot of sleep regardless, having a five or six month old, so I’m used to not getting a lot of sleep,” she said. “It was hard to sleep just because the adrenaline and being so excited and wanting to turn the page to Indiana.
“These are quick turnarounds, and remember, we don’t play these teams a lot. We don’t see them a lot, so we have a lot of work to do.”
— Seattle Storm (@seattlestorm) March 27, 2021
Barnes mentioned among her many text messages were those from former WNBA teammates with the Seattle Storm, including her former coach with that organization, Gary Kloppenburg, a 21-year WNBA coaching veteran mostly as an assistant with the Storm.
“It makes me proud,” Barnes said of her former teammates and Kloppenburg reaching out to her. “I remember he’s one of the people who influenced my coaching. We always made fun of the way he would close out, talk and speak because he was always animated. All of us pro players used to make fun of him.
“But I’ve used a lot of his defense in my coaching.”
That is working to the degree of Arizona’s opponents in the NCAA tournament — Stony Brook, BYU and Texas A&M — shooting a combined 56 of 150 (37.3 percent) from the field, including 9 of 36 (25 percent) from 3-point range.
Arizona has forced more turnovers (59) than field goals made (56) by opponents in the NCAA Tournament.
“Their coach has made it clear that they know that they have some limitations offensively as well, so they really have got to hang their hat on the defensive end,” Moren said. “They’re super aggressive. Our ball security, taking care of it, having low turnovers, which we’ve been doing, is going to be paramount.”
Moren added that McDonald, a finalist for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year award, is “probably the fastest, quickest kid we will face all year.”
“When you have a kid like that on your roster that can score, the way she scores,” Moren said, “I think it’s really important that, you don’t allow the supporting cast to have big nights.”
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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.