Arizona Women's Basketball

Adia Barnes: Arizona wants to “sustain success” in fourth straight NCAA tourney appearance

It has been written about by the local media, stated on social media and talked about on the radio waves: Arizona’s women’s basketball program might be better served hosting WBIT games rather than be a low seed in the NCAA tournament and travel far with the odds of advancing stacked against the Wildcats.

Arizona is also operating with seven scholarship players, three of them freshman starters (Jada Williams, Breya Cunningham and Skylar Jones) because of injuries and player defections.

Ironically, the lack of depth makes Arizona coach Adia Barnes more resolved about an NCAA tournament appearance being much more beneficial than another spot in what was called the WNIT after winning that event in 2019.

The Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament Field of 68 with a First Four game scheduled Thursday at 4 p.m., Tucson time, against Auburn at Storrs, Conn., for a No. 11 seed opposite No. 6 Syracuse in the first round of the Portland 3 Regional.

“I think once you’ve just played at the highest level and been in the NCAA Tournament, I think that as you’re building it, as you build the program, you want to sustain success,” Barnes said. “You want a program where every year you’re in the NCAA tournament.

“I think there’s so much value to playing in the postseason, whether it’s the WNIT or whatever, but for us just to have the chance with three freshmen starting, seven players and going to the NCAA tournament, I think it’s just an amazing experience for our young players. They’re the foundation for the future. So I’m excited.”

Barnes added that her 17-15 team that went 8-10 in a very challenging Pac-12 schedule is “good enough to beat a lot of these tournament teams. We have a very favorable bracket so I think that it’s a perfect situation for us.”

Arizona is one of seven Pac-12 programs to make the NCAA tournament field.

The six other Pac-12 schools include No. 3 Oregon State in the Albany 1 Regional, No. 2 UCLA and No. 5 Colorado in the Albany 2 Regional, No. 1 USC in the Portland 3 Regional and No. 2 Stanford and No. 5 Utah in the Portland 3 Regional.

Auburn (20-11) is one of eight teams from the SEC in the tournament.

Aurburn coach Johnnie Harris is in her fifth season as the Tigers’ head coach. This will be her first NCAA tournament appearance with the Tigers after reaching March Madness as an assistant with Texas and Mississippi State.

“It’s been five years for this program and this is a program that should be in the tournament,” Harris told “When I came here, my goal was to build a program — not just a team that gets to the tournament, but a program that’s a top-25 program. I feel like we’re on our way to do that.

“It’s not easy and it doesn’t come just like that. You have to build it. You have to instill a system. You have to build your culture. And that has taken a little time but I think we’re getting there.”

The Tigers will make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2019. They are seeking their first tournament win since 2016, when they took down No. 8 seed St. John’s in the first round before losing to top-seeded Baylor in the Round of 32.

Auburn lost at home against Cal 67-53 on Nov. 17 and defeated Washington State 69-62 also in a game at Auburn on Dec. 20.

Arizona went 3-1 the Golden Bears and Cougars. The Wildcats swept Cal and split with Washington State.

Arizona is in its fourth straight NCAA tournament under Barnes, a legendary Wildcat. She coached her alma mater to the national championship game in 2021. Arizona beat UNLV in a first-round game at McKale Center before losing to North Carolina in 2022 and the Wildcats lost at Maryland (coached by former Arizona standout Brenda Frese) in the second round last year after defeating West Virginia.

Barnes is 7-3 in NCAA tournament games, a highly impressive feat inasmuch as Arizona did not advance to March Madness from 2005 until when the Wildcats made their historic run in 2021. The program’s NCAA tournament record before her arrival was 6-7, all under Joan Bonvicini, Barnes’ former coach at Arizona.

Lost in the fact that Arizona has made four straight NCAA tournaments under Barnes: the Wildcats were primed for a deep run in 2020 as a certain host of the first and second rounds but COVID-19 forced the postseason to be canceled.

“We were a better team the year after the WNIT (championship in 2019),” Barnes said. “We actually had a better team than we did in that (2021) Final Four run because we had Dominique McBride. We would have probably been an Elite Eight team then and would have gone to the tournament so it really would have been five years (consecutively).”

Barnes was asked to comment about Arizona putting together a string of four consecutive appearances in March Madness.

She reflected on criticism from fans on social media this year about Arizona’s overall record, her losing players to the transfer portal after last season and Maya Nnaji and Kailyn Gilbert leaving the team during the season.

“There’s so many critics,” Barnes said. “I’m thinking like when I took over this program, it was a miracle to be in the tournament. And then we win the WNIT (in 2019) and then we go to the national championship … So sometimes I read stuff and people are super critical. I’m like, ‘You guys must not remember eight or 10 years ago when Arizona was like 300 RPI.’

“Sometimes I get kind of mad about that. I’m like, ‘Okay, when I came here, there’s 300 fans, now there’s 7,000 (a game at McKale Center). Like, ‘Be quiet.’ I kind of take offense to that because there are very few places in the country or very few programs that you’re gonna be like a Stanford there every year. That is like one in a million. I mean, there’s UConns and Stanfords and that’s shifting now because basketball is changing. There’s more parity.”

Arizona’s lack of depth makes its NCAA tournament appearance even more remarkable, and signifies one of Barnes’ best coaching performances in her eight seasons as head coach.

In addition to its seven scholarship players, Arizona has walk-on Brooklyn Rhodes of St. Louis. She joined the team with two weeks left in the regular season but will be used sparingly. She has played less than 2 minutes in two games.

Barnes added that playing in Storrs, Conn., where Geno Auriemma has built one of the powerhouses of the women’s game, will benefit Arizona’s young players as they move forward in their careers.

Fifth-year senior Helena Pueyo is the only player remaining from the 2020-21 team that advanced to the national championship game.

“I think it means a lot,” Barnes said. “I think a lot of our kids like Jada and Breya, where they know (UConn All-American) Paige Bueckers and played with some of them on USA Basketball and stuff, I think it’s good for them just getting a chance to have that whole experience.

“They’re a good team (UConn). It’s across the country. So I think it’s just a great experience. There’s going to be some adversity. There’s going to be some challenges. They’re going to feel what it’s like, but win, lose or draw, I don’t care. It’s the fact that we’ve gone through this process. We’ve been there. We know what this feels like. We don’t want to be in this situation again (as a First Four team). So the understanding of everything in totality is what I’m happy for.”

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 in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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