You don’t have to look at won-loss records to know whether Adia Barnes, the fourth-year head coach, is turning around the University of Arizona women’s basketball program.
You just have to count the house.
What was once a near-empty McKale Center during the women’s games is now an arena filled with excited, boisterous fans who, after more than a decade of disappointment, are finally showing up with expectations of watching winning basketball.
A program that averaged just 1,565 fans four years ago in Barnes’ inaugural season saw attendance go through the roof at the close of last season when 14,644 seats were filled in McKale to watch the Wildcats win the WNIT by beating Northwestern, 56-42, in the tournament finale. More than 46,000 fans showed up for the six games of that national tournament.
That final game, a rare sell-out, was not just a new school attendance record, but also the largest crowd in the history of Pac-12 women’s basketball.
There was good reason the UofA women’s program was drawing such disappointing numbers four years ago. When Barnes, the program’s scoring leader during her college playing career at Arizona, took over the program, it was in complete disarray. The Cats hadn’t won more than four games in conference play in any of the previous four years under Niya Butts, who posted just one winning record in eight seasons.
For awhile, it looked like things weren’t going to change. Barnes’ first team managed to add another losing season, going 14-16. And in her second season, things got worse as that team posted a 6-24 overall record, with just two conference victories.
But last year, her impressive recruiting efforts began to turn the tide. Barnes got her first 20-win season as the Cats finished 24-13, with a huge upset win over then-No. 17 ASU. That game drew a wildly-appreciative crowd of 5,006 to McKale and contributed to the positive buzz about the women’s team that began to spread throughout campus.
Unfortunately, it didn’t result in an NCAA berth.
Now, building off the momentum from last season and the WNIT title, the Wildcats are averaging 4,675 over the six home games played so far. The season opener drew 3,450 and the attendance kept growing from there.
Their last game, a 77-42 win over Tennessee State last week, will fuel the flames of hoops hysteria even further since that victory boosted their record to 10-0 to post the best start in program history.
And it also ran their win streak to 16 games, dating back to last year’s title run through the WNIT. That gives this team another mention in the Arizona record books since it’s the longest win streak ever by a UofA women’s basketball team.
They put 3,891 fannies in the seats for the Tennessee State game, and gave their fan base even more reason to continue showing up.
Arizona has size this year, anchored by the twin towers of 6-6 Semaj Smith and 6-2 Cate Reese, a five-star prospect who was the highest-rated recruit in program history when she came aboard last year, ranked the No. 3 forward in the nation by one recruiting service. The sophomore from Texas is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds a game.
The Cats also also have the firepower on offense to give the fans a fun, exciting game to watch. Junior Aari McDonald (pictured above), a 5-7 guard who transferred in from Washington after her freshman year, is averaging 20 points and 3.5 assists a game. She has turned into one of the top back court players in Division I, leading an offense that has put up better than 80 points in four games so far.
And, with a lock-down defense that held Tennessee State to 26 percent shooting, the No. 18 Wildcats have all the ingredients to earn a spot in this years’ NCAA Tournament field.
They made the most of falling short last year by winning the WNIT title, making a good case that maybe they should have been at the Big Dance instead.
But this year, they hopefully won’t need an invite to the consolation tournament. This year they have momentum to carry them into the rugged Pac-12 Conference play.
And an enthused fan base that is determined to help them crash the party called March Madness.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)