Arizona is going where it’s never gone before to play mighty UConn and Geno Auriemma, who is in his 21st Final Four, including the last 13 years.
Auriemma was graduating from West Chester (Pa.) University in 1977 when Adia Barnes was born. His coaching career began the following year as an assistant at St. Joseph’s.
When he took over UConn’s program in 1985, Barnes was in grade school.
She was a freshman at Arizona in 1994-95 when Auriemma won his first of 11 championships.
Arizona played UConn in 1997-98 in the Sweet 16 when Barnes was a senior. She scored 17 points in that 74-57 loss at Dayton, Ohio, marred by starting center Marte Alexander’s ACL tear midway through the second half.
Auriemma told reporters leading up to that game that he was leery of Arizona’s speed. He will likely say the same thing about Aari McDonald’s quickness ahead of Friday’s game.
“We don’t have the kind of quickness they have,” Auriemma said before facing Joan Bonvicini’s team 23 years ago. “They get out and shoot the ball without worrying about the consequences. That’s a dangerous team to play.
“We’ll need to control the tempo and we’ll be hard-pressed to do it.”
How the Huskies got here
UConn (28-1) reached the Final Four on Monday by surviving with a 69-67 win over Baylor thanks to a 19-0 run in the second half and a controversial no-call on an obvious foul by two UConn players on a shot attempt by DiJonai Carrington with 5 seconds left.
Trailing 68-67, Carrington appeared to be fouled by Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa as she went up for a shot.
“So you want to go back and check every single call throughout the entire game?” Auriemma said. “And then add them all up and … you don’t. That’s the nature of sports.”
Freshman Paige Bueckers led the Huskies with 28 points in a full 40 minutes. Fellow starters Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook also played 40 minutes. The lone reserve, Aubrey Griffin, played 25 minutes.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 30, 2021
UConn’s depth might be a concern or Auriemma’s utilization of it thereof.
He also made the comment that 10 of his players will experience the Final Four for the first time.
“It’s a lot to digest, but right now you can only think about this particular one,” Auriemma said when asked about his 13 straight Final Fours. “You don’t necessarily think about the other 12. We have 10 kids on our team that have not been to one Final Four. To me, that is what the excitement is all about. Those 10 kids have never been to one and they’re getting an opportunity to go to their very first.”
Arizona is in the Final Four after dominating Indiana in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Hoosiers 20-9, en route to a 66-53 victory Monday night.
No better recruiting tool than a Final Four
Barnes was asked what earning the school’s first Final Four means to the stature of the program nationally with recruiting and perspective from the national media.
She explained that recruits would love what’s going on already with the program with style of play she coaches.
That Final Four Look as a coach pic.twitter.com/9wl23hmhy4
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 30, 2021
“It means a lot when you have the proof that you’re doing something right and successful,” Barnes said. “I think that in our program, our players have improved. You look at Cate (Reese) as a freshman, you look Aari two, three years ago, you look at Sam (Thomas) as a freshman — our players get better and we pride ourselves with that development.
“We’re not getting McDonald’s All-Americans. Some programs have multiple McDonald’s All-Americans and we don’t. We have one who is Cate Reese. So we have to get our players better. We have to prepare them. I think our style of play is fun. I think players want to play in an exciting style. We don’t sit back and do zones and play percentages. We get out and then guard you. That’s the way I loved to play as a player.”
Barnes joins Dawn Staley with WNBA distinction
Barnes is the second former WNBA player to coach a team into the Final Four, following the feat South Carolina’s Dawn Staley made in 2014-15 and 2016-17 when she took the Gamecocks to the Final Four.
Barnes played in the WNBA from 1998 to 2004 and completed her career with a championship with the Seattle Storm. She would go on to play professionally an additional seven years overseas.
“It means the world to me, because I have created lifelong friendships throughout my years as a pro,” Barnes said of joining Staley with that honor. “I think there needs to be more WNBA players coaching women’s basketball. I want to see more.
“Dawn is someone who’s always believed in me and sent me a nice message. We all support each other. When you’ve played pro, you’ve walked the walk. I think a lot of players want to play for someone who’s been 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.