They didn’t finish up the season where they had hoped, playing in the NCAA Tournament.
But where the University of Arizona women’s basketball team did end up wasn’t all that bad. Just ask any of the 14,000 cheering fans that showed up yesterday afternoon at Arizona’s McKale Center to watch the Wildcats win the WNIT Tournament.
Actually, the exact attendance number was 14,644. And that was not only a record for the UofA program, but the largest crowd in the history of Pac-12 women’s basketball.
“For us to be able to be home the whole time was huge,” head coach Adia Barnes noted at the post-game presser. “It’s one of the reasons we were able to pull out the win.
“It was amazing, I think magical. We made history today.”
A national title was a fitting send-off for the seniors who have worked so hard to turn around a program that has suffered through the last couple of seasons in what was supposed to be a rebuilding effort under a new head coach.
The first two seasons under Barnes finished in disappointment as the Wildcats posted 14-16 and 6-24 overall records. Worse yet, the Cats won a total of five conference games in the 2016-17 season and managed just two Pac-12 victories last year.
But this year had all the signs of a turnaround as the Cats opened the season by winning 12 of their first 13 games, the only blemish a two-point loss to Loyola Marymount. They even beat rival Arizona State during that run.
However, a rocky road through the rugged Pac-12 schedule that ended with four straight losses, and elimination from the Pac-12 Tournament in the second game, left them off the invitation list for the Big Dance. Instead, they accepted an offer to play in the WNIT, the tournament that provides a chance for those that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament to continue their seasons.
And Barnes and her much-improved team made the most of the opportunity. They won six games in two weeks, culminating with a 56-42 victory over Northwestern to bring home the national title. They didn’t have to carry the hardware very far to add it to the trophy case since all six games were played at McKale.
That turned out to be a huge advantage since the Wildcat Nation fan base filled up the gym throughout the tourney as more than 46,000 fans showed up for the six games. The semifinal game, a 59-53 win over TCU, set a new school record with 10,153 fannies in the seats. The next night, they broke that record in the title game with a sell-out crowd that was even louder and more enthusiastic.
Arizona’s sophomore point guard, Aari McDonald, led all scorers with 19 points, and also contributed seven rebounds, six steals, and three assists. Which helps explain why she was named the tournament’s MVP – which is eerily similar to a WNIT that unfolded 13 years ago.
It was her coach that earned the MVP honors during the 1996 WNIT, when Barnes was a sophomore guard on the Arizona team that won the crown that year. That was the only other time the program has won the WNIT Tournament.
This time, McDonald got some scoring help from Cate Reese, a freshman forward who contributed 13 points and nine rebounds, while senior forward Tee Tee Starks kicked in 12 points and five rebounds.
Those 19 points from McDonald gives her a total of 890 points for the season, which is more single-season points than any player in the history of the Arizona women’s basketball program.
However, the defense has to be given a large part of the credit for the title victory. Arizona held Northwestern to 26.5 percent shooting from the field and 26.7 percent from behind the arc. The Cats also won the battle on the boards, 45-32.
For Barnes, the WNIT run helps to validate her recruiting success during her two years directing the program.
“We have a really good group,” she pointed out with a big smile. ” And they’re all coming back.”
(Photo: Arizona Athletics/ Rebecca Sasnett)