Arizona has two connections with West Virginia going into their NCAA tournament first-round game on Friday morning at College Park, Md., and coach Adia Barnes welcomes the storylines.
Esmery Martinez transferred from West Virginia to Arizona this season and Barnes hired former Mountaineer assistant Bett Shelby to her staff this season as the special assistant to the head coach.
“I think every player has a lot of emotions playing against their former team and they always want to play really well,” Barnes said in a press conference on Thursday at the XFINITY Center at Landover, Md., where No. 7 Arizona (21-9) will play the No. 10 Mountaineers (19-11) in the first round at 9 a.m. Friday.
Martinez reportedly is in good spirits about facing her former school, where she was an All-Big 12 first-team performer in 2020-21 and a second-team selection last year.
“I’m just excited for her. How random is that, to play against her former team?” Barnes said. “And one of our coaches was also a coach there. So yeah, she’s excited. I think she’s in a good place. I am excited to be in the tournament. Obviously, plays against good friends that she’s known from before, even in West Virginia.”
Barnes reiterated that she did not anticipate being a No. 7 seed after being near the top-4 line all season.
“It really doesn’t matter,” she said. “At this time in March, anything can happen.”
The seeding places the Wildcats in a potential second-round matchup with No. 2 Maryland, the host team which is coached by former Wildcat guard Brenda Frese.
The Terrapins (25-6) will play No. 15 Holy Cross (24-8) in the other first-round game Friday at College Park at 11:30 a.m., Tucson time.
“I think Esmery is just excited to be in the tournament, and same with (fellow senior transfer) Jade (Loville),” Barnes said. “I think for our older players, they are just ready to make some noise in the tournament.
“We didn’t end the regular season the way we wanted (with a three-game losing streak). The tournament is like a new beginning and a new season for us, so we’re just excited.”
Loville, a transfer from ASU who first played at Boise State, has not played in the NCAA tournament since she was a freshman with the Broncos in 2018-19. Boise State lost at Oregon State 80-75 in overtime in the first-round game and Loville had two points, one rebound and one assist in six minutes off the bench.
“It’s been a few years since I have been dancing, and it feels really good this time,” Loville said. “We have been preparing and finally being able to dial in on who we’re playing, and knowing it’s a matter of hours away, couldn’t be more excited.”
Loville discussed the early wakeup call for the Wildcats, who are not accustomed to tipping off at 9 in the morning.
“(My) fifth year, obviously, we want to go out with a bang, so that’s in our plans and we’re excited to practice and get on that East coast time and then wake up and really do it,” Loville said.
Any game can be the last of Cate Reese’s illustrious career at Arizona.
The fifth-year player, granted another year of eligibility because of COVID-19 restrictions in 2019-20 and 2020-21, is in the top 5 in Arizona career lists in these categories:
Scoring — No. 5 at 1,907 points
Rebounding — No. 2 at 951 (Ify Ibekwe has the record with 1,194).
Field goals made — No. 3 at 741
Double-doubles — No. 4 with 22
Games started — No. 2 with 151 (Sam Thomas is the record-holder with 154)
Reese enters this year’s tournament without health concerns. Last season, she was trying to work her way back from a dislocated shoulder. She had to undergo surgery after Arizona’s second-round loss at McKale Center against North Carolina.
“Compared to last year, it’s a lot less stress and pressure,” she said. “I knew going into it, I was injured. I was going to have to get surgery after season. That was definitely something on my mind.
“Now I can play free. I don’t have to worry about anything, so that’s really exciting. Taking it one game at a time. We’re all really excited.”
Another topic of discussion at Barnes’ press conference was the two-week delay between playing in the Pac-12 tournament to now participating in the NCAA tournament.
Arizona last played on March 2, a 73-59 loss to UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament.
When the Wildcats advanced to their first Final Four with Aari McDonald at point guard in 2021, they went 17 days between playing in the Pac-12 tournament (loss to UCLA) and in the first round against Stony Brook.
“(The Pac-12) being the first tournament, I think it’s good and bad,” Barnes said. “From just my seven years there, I think in the beginning it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s so long.’ It’s like a hurry-up-and-wait. I think it’s hard for players psychologically.
“The other part of it is you get more time to practice and prepare and you get to rest. For the year we went to the Final Four, when Aari was at Arizona, she got to rest an injury. I think those things, it’s really good.”
Barnes said the two-week wait is better when a team is coming off struggles, like Arizona faced in losses to Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA in the last three games, rather than if a team is on a hot streak.
“For us this year in particular it was good,” she said. “We didn’t play in the (Pac-12) tournament like we wanted to. But when I look back and what I’m really optimistic is if you look back at our Final Four year, we didn’t play well. We were in a bad place (at 21-6 entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed).
“And then we went and played really well in the NCAA Tournament. … That was a time for me to have us reset, get better. And we really got better. Work on some things that weren’t going so well and then focus on this tournament. I think it was good for us. When you’re rolling, it’s not ideal because then you are on a roll and then you have to wait. I think for us, just from my experience, it’s been good. So we’ll see.”