Candice Warthen scored a team-high 12 points, pulled down six rebounds, and dished out three assists in yesterday’s Pac-12 Tournament. But it wasn’t enough to stave off a first-round exit for the University of Arizona women’s basketball team as they fell to UCLA, 80-62.
And it wasn’t nearly enough to erase what has been another disappointing season for the Wildcats.
Nor was it most likely enough to save her coach’s job. It would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which head coach Niya Butts will be retained for another season. The team’s 10-20 finish marks the fourth season in a row of unmet expectations and fourth season in which the Wildcats have occupied a spot in, or near, the bottom of the Pac-12 Conference at season’s end.
(Update 3/8/15: Greg Hansen reports in his Sunday column for the Arizona Daily Star that UA Athletic Director Greg Byrne is planning on retaining Coach Butts for next season. According to Hansen, Byrne is gong to let her stay to complete her contract, which expires next year, and have an opportunity to have a full year to use the new women’s facilities at McKale Center as a recruiting tool.)
Throughout those four years, Warthen has amassed a total 1,105 career points to wrap up her college career as the No. 16 scorer on UofA’s all-time list. This season, she did it all for the team. She led the Cats in scoring throughout the regular season with 12.8 points per game, and was also the leader in free throws and field goals made per game, assists, and minutes played.
And get this. The 5’5″ guard was also the top defensive rebounder and finished third in overall rebounding.
Warthen and senior forward Alli Gloyd from South Mountain High School in Phoenix provided the senior leadership as part of a roster this season that was beefed up with a top-25 recruiting class. The two started every game this season.
Expectations were high that this might be the program’s beginning of a turnaround, despite the fact that they had been picked by the conference coaches in the preseason to finish in last place.
Unfortunately, they lived up to those low expectations, winning just three conference games after finishing last season with one Pac-12 win. The season before it was four wins as they lost 13 of their final 14 games – and another first-round exit in the Pac-12 tourney.
Butts won 21 games during the 2010-11 season, her third year in charge, but it has been all downhill from there. The current athletic director, Greg Byrne, didn’t hire Butts; his predecessor did, plucking her out of her job as an assistant coach at Kentucky. And it’s hard to imagine how Byrne can justify keeping her beyond this season.
Had her team gone all the way and won the Pac-12 Tournament, even after losing three of the final four regular-season games, it might have given Byrne some second thoughts. But an 18-point loss to a team that entered the tournament 12-17 with eight losses out of their final 12 games was just business as usual and reflective of the way too many important games have gone.
The Cats actually led in the opening minutes of the game, but UCLA was up eight points midway through the first half and had built that to 13 points by intermission.
Arizona struggled with the Bruins’ 2-3 zone since they weren’t able to convert on a single three-point attempt. That helped hold the Cats to an anemic 26 percent shooting in the first half. They also turned the ball over 10 times in the first 2o minutes.
Arizona’s defensive rebounding got worse as the half proceeded as the Bruins collected 13 second-chance points, and head coach Cori Close was able to substitute pretty freely as her bench contributed 22 points in the first half.
In the second half, Arizona went on an 8-1 run that closed the gap to 10 points at 51-41 midway through the half, but the Bruins quickly opened it back up again, running up their biggest lead of the game, 16 points, with nine minutes left to play. They held a double-digit lead the rest of the way and were never in jeopardy of moving on to play Stanford in the quarterfinals.
Breanna Workman was right behind Warthen’s offensive effort, scoring 11 points and pulling down four rebounds. The other player in double digits was JaLea Bennett with 10 points.
Butts has just wrapped up her seventh season in Tucson. Now the ball is in Greg Byrne’s court.
By all accounts, Butts is a good coach with personal integrity who has the respect of her players. But she wouldn’t be the first good person to fail to make the transition from the assistant’s seat on the bench to the role of head coach.
Byrne has been patient and fair, giving her a vote of confidence as soon as the last season ended at 5-24, and bringing her back after three consecutive years of being the doormat of the conference. That put an end to the rumors and speculation about her job security.
However, that starts anew beginning today.
As with any college AD, much of Byrne’s job performance is judged on the success of his coaches. And Butts is not making him look good.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)