Instant credibility. That’s what a big win over an established in-state rival brings to a new head coach.
For Adia Barnes, the first-year head coach of the University of Arizona women’s basketball program, the euphoria of a big win over hated rival Arizona State on Friday was a validation of sorts that she has the program headed in the right direction.
The Wildcats are 13-14 overall with just four conference wins, but the 62-58 home victory over the Sun Devils Friday provided welcome signs that the dominance ASU displayed against her predecessor, Niya Butts, may be coming to an end. The Cats were 2-15 against ASU during the eight years under Butts.
However, those high hopes were tempered somewhat when the Wildcats traveled to Tempe yesterday afternoon for a re-match. ASU took an early lead and held it the rest of the way as Arizona couldn’t stop the Devils from using scoring runs at almost regular intervals to keep the Cats at arm’s length.
The Sun Devils held a 12-point lead at the half and built it to 22 points in the final quarter before Arizona began closing the gap, eventually falling, 67-54, to a highly-motivated opponent that is fighting for a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament next month.
ASU held a 33-28 edge in rebounding yesterday and shot 47 percent from the field compared to the Wildcatss’ 42 percent. But the stat that stands out is the difference in effectiveness from 3-point range. In the first game, Arizona was 44.4 percent accurate from behind the arc, picking up 12 points with the long ball. But yesterday, ASU held the Cats to just 15.4 percent on their 13 attempts.
Breanna Workman and LaBrittney Jones, Arizona’s senior posts, led the scoring for the Wildcats in Friday’s game, with each collecting 15 points. But, while Jones scored 14 in the re-match, Workman was held to just seven points. Malena Washington (14) and JaLea Bennett (11) picked up the slack, giving the Cats’ offense three double-digit scorers.
ASU had just two players in double figures yesterday, and just barely at that. Sophomore guard Sabrina Haines led the team with 13 points and senior forward Sophie Brunner added 10. But the Devils’ spread-the-ball-around offense made it difficult for the Arizona defense to key on any one scorer; 10 different ASU players put points on the board.
By most comparisons, this is somewhat of a down year for ASU (17-10, 8-8), which has become a national presence during the 20 seasons the program has been run by Charli Turner Thorne. During that time, Turner Thorne has become second in wins in the Pac-12 and ranks as the winningest coach in ASU women’s basketball history.
For Barnes, it’s just the beginning of a long road that Wildcat fans hope will bring back the winning ways that have been absent for more than a decade.
Almost 10 years ago, Niya Butts replaced hall-of-fame coach Joan Bonvicini on the UofA bench after the 2007-08 season and had some early success, putting up a 20-win record in her third season. But that turned out to be the only winning season in her eight years at Arizona. Bonvicini had turned the program into a national contender during her 17 years before her successes tapered off into a series of down seasons that resulted in her dismissal.
The four conference wins this season under Barnes is actually one more than Butts managed in her final season in 2015-16. The year before, Butts won just one Pac-12 game. Over the last five years under Butts, the Cats won a total of 14 conference games.
A change in leadership had been long overdue.
Barnes had never been a college head coach before being tapped to replace Butts. But her resume is impressive. She was a three-time All-Conference selection during her playing career at Arizona and left the program as the school’s all-time leading scorer (2,237 points), and then went on to a 12-year WNBA career. After leaving the pro game, she was an assistant on the Washington Huskies’ coaching staff for five seasons.
She played for Bonvicini during her college career in Tucson, during a period in which Arizona ruled the roost in this state. Barnes didn’t know what it was like to lose a rivalry game to that Pac-12 team to the north.
Now she knows. And it’s undoubtedly not sitting well in the pit of her stomach.
But that will provide more motivation for rebuilding the Wildcat program, a job that appears to be well underway.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)