Arizona Women's Basketball

Arizona focusing on Vanderbilt amid basking in Virgin Islands fun

Arizona has enjoyed itself this week at the Virgin Islands (Arizona photo)

One of the difficulties of early-season holiday tournaments is keeping a team focused on what really should be a business trip.

But how can you temper the enthusiasm of college-age athletes from having some fun at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands?

That’s like stopping at Dairy Queen to have your kids do homework without buying them ice cream.

Arizona coach Adia Barnes has the right approach with her team opening the Paradise Jam today against Vanderbilt:

“I’m excited for the players to get the chance to experience St. Thomas. I’ve never been there,” she said last week after Arizona improved to 4-0 after routing Marist 78-36 at McKale Center. “I think it’s going to be fun. Do some fun stuff with them, grow our chemistry and our cohesiveness and I think that only helps us get better. I think we’ll get better in every way.”

Arizona, ranked No. 9 this week in the AP Top 25, has the veteran leadership of Sam Thomas and Cate Reese to know they can adequately mix business with pleasure.

After playing Vanderbilt on Thursday (1:15 p.m., ESPN3 stream, KTUC 1400-AM), the Wildcats play DePaul on Friday and Rutgers on Saturday (the Scarlet Knights unfortunately are without legendary coach Vivian C. Stringer, who is taking a leave of absence this season due to COVID-19 concerns while she cares for her 40-year-old daughter who has required special care since contracting spinal meningitis as a toddler).

Thomas and Reese have been especially expressive on the bench and away from the gym, keeping the team loose, while also exerting energy in games and leading by example as coaches on the floor for Barnes and her staff.

“I’m excited to just be with the team, enjoy the beach, hopefully win all three games,” Thomas said. “That’s the goal. We’re gonna focus on that but just enjoy the time with my teammates.”

Arizona aims to come home 7-0 before having a two-week break before North Dakota State visits McKale on Dec. 9. The Wildcats were scheduled to play at UC Riverside on Dec. 3 but that game was canceled because the Highlanders are under COVID-19 protocol.

Cat Claws:

— Arizona director of recruiting Kortney Dunbar and transfer forward Koi Love were with Vanderbilt in recent years before joining the Wildcats’ program. A former Tennessee player, Dunbar worked from 2018-20 at Vanderbilt as a graduate assistant. Love started all eight games of Vandy’s shortened season last year due to COVID-19. She nearly averaged a double-double with 20.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Love is in Arizona’s rotation and is averaging 4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds a game.

— Arizona ranks in the top 10 nationally in field-goal percentage defense (.283, fifth) and scoring defense (44.3 points a game, seventh), and scoring margin (35.5 points, ninth).

Lauren Ware ranks 25th in the NCAA with 2.5 blocks per game. She ranks 23rd for total blocks (10).

Aaronette Vonleh ranks fifth nationally with a 71.4% shooting percentage.

— Arizona is 21st nationally in total assists (81) and 14th with 20.2 assists per game.

— Thomas is the 11th player in school history to make at least 100 career 3-pointers and is the sixth player in school history with 100 or more career blocks. The senior is second in Arizona history in blocks (175) and sixth in made 3-pointers (177) and is the only player in school history with at least 100 three-pointers and blocks. She is also the only active Pac-12 player with at least 100 3-pointers and blocks. She also is approaching 1,200 career points presently at 1,167.

— Barnes is only seven wins shy of reaching her 100th career victory. She is at 93-66 in her sixth season, a remarkable record inasmuch as she started 20-40 in her first two years. That means she is an impressive 73-26 (.737 winning percentage) since.

— Vanderbilt is 3-2 with losses to Little Rock and Middle Tennessee State, but the Commodores have won their last two games against Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State. New head coach Shea Ralph was an assistant at UConn last season when Arizona upset the top-seeded Huskies in the Final Four. She took over at Vandy after spending the previous 13 seasons as an assistant coach under Geno Auriemma from 2008 to 2021.

— Good reading: A Vanderbilt feature on Ralph and her mom Marsha Lake, a legendary North Carolina player who experienced playing when Title IX came about in 1971 to bring gender equality to college sports.

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! 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, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, 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

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