Arizona women’s basketball has come this far under seventh-year coach Adia Barnes after the program earned a spot in the 2020-21 national championship game:
— More than 5,500 season tickets have been sold — a program record — and that amount alone (before walk-up sales) is the envy of a vast majority of programs in the country.
— The nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, according to ESPN, signed with Arizona on Tuesday — Breya Cunningham, Montaya Dew and Jada Williams.
Those kind of developments were a fantasy when Barnes returned to her alma mater to take over the dormant program in 2016.
Arizona, ranked No. 19 entering the season, has joined the elite.
“Arizona is now a place where we attract the nation’s top talent,” Barnes said. “(Cunningham, Dew and Williams) all came to Arizona to win a national championship. They make our program better.”
All three are rated five stars by ESPN HoopGurlz.
Dew is the eighth-ranked player in the class of 2023 and Cunningham is No. 14. Williams is the 21st-ranked prospect.
Only two returning starters will be in the lineup against Northern Arizona on Thursday night (6:30 p.m.) in the season opener at McKale Center — fifth-year players Cate Reese at forward and Shaina Pellington at point guard — but the lineup and rotation is loaded with talented transfers.
They include Jade Loville (Arizona State transfer) as a multi-dimensional wing player, guard Lauren Fields (Oklahoma State) and forward Esmery Martinez (West Virginia). That core is championship worthy.
Players in the top rotation will include four-year defensive specialist Helena Pueyo, third-year sharp-shooting guard Madison Conner and highly-touted freshmen Kailyn Gilbert, Lemyah Hylton and Paris Clark at guard and Maya Nnaji (Zeke’s sister) at the post.
Arizona returns only four regulars from last year after losing veteran captain Sam Thomas (exhausted her eligibility) and a host of transfers but optimism is like never before entering a season because of the overall skill level and team-first mentality of the players on this year’s roster.
Barnes admitted Arizona struggled because of team chemistry issues late last season leading up to the defeat at McKale Center to North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats’ demise included losing four of their last six games.
“Those things were exposed in the last part of the season,” Barnes said after the loss to North Carolina. “That’s the reality. It is what it is but that’s not gonna happen again, because we’re not going to have a team that where that can happen again.”
NAU, which nearly beat ASU in a 69-68 loss at Tempe on Monday, will provide a good test as an opener for Arizona under successful veteran coach Loree Payne.
The Lumberjacks no longer have former Pima College players JJ Nakai (exhausted eligibility) and Sierra Mich’l (out of basketball).
Arizona — Adia Barnes is 110-74 in the seventh year of her career (all at Arizona). She is 90-34 since starting 20-40 in her first two seasons of rebuilding the program.
Northern Arizona — Loree Payne, a former Washington standout, is in her fifth season at NAU (68-85) and 13th season overall (198-137). As head coach at Puget Sound, Payne led the Loggers to seven winning seasons, including 26-3 in 2016-17. She signed a five-year contract extension with NAU in April coming off the most successful three-year run in program history (48-43).
WHEN ARIZONA HAS THE BALL
— Look for Loville (daughter of former NFL running back Derek Loville) to get the amount of shots that she wants because she’ll deliver. The fifth-year transfer from ASU led the conference in scoring last season averaging 18.6 points per game.
— Reese has worked her way back from last year’s brutal separated shoulder injury, which required surgery, and played through an injury scare in last week’s exhibition game. She will get her share of points off rebounds and facing the basket — she loves to attack and stick layups and jumpers within the lane.
— Pellington became more of a threat offensively last season. She was second on the team in scoring (11.3 points a game) and assists (2.2).
— In the loss at ASU on Monday, NAU limited the Sun Devils to 22.2 percent shooting from 3-point range. Regan Schenk, who can play at the Pac-12 level on a consistent basis, led the Lumberjacks with four steals.
WHEN NAU HAS THE BALL
— Schenck had 18 points against ASU on 7-of-15 shooting, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range with an incredible 13 assists. She is at the center of the Lumberjacks’ offensive flow. How will she hold up against Pellington and Arizona’s disruptive guards on defense?
— NAU managed 19 rebounds on offense against the Sun Devils. Sophie Glancy, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Boise, Idaho, had five of them and finished with 13 overall off the bench.
— Without Lauren Ware’s 6-foot-5 presence (she’s out for the season with a knee injury), Arizona will have to count on Nnaji (6-4), Reese (6-2) and Martinez (6-2) for their ability to alter shots and adequately defend skilled post players. Arizona is not as tall depth-wise inside this season after losing Ware, 6-6 Semaj Smith (San Jose State), 6-3 Gisela Sanchez (Kansas State), 6-3 Ariyah Copeland (graduation) and 6-3 Aaronette Vonleh (Colorado).
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District