Ever since Adia Barnes arrived in Tucson four years ago to take over the University of Arizona women’s basketball program, her rival in Tempe has been keeping an eye on her progress.
For the first couple of years, Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne was able to use her rearview mirror to keep track of the newcomer.
But the last two years, Turner Thorne, who is beginning her 24th season running the ASU program, has had to turn her attention to the passing lane. That’s where the Wildcats are riding going into the 2020-21 season.
Arizona came into this season ranked No. 7 nationally. That’s the highest preseason ranking in school history for a UofA program that had been left for dead the past 15 years. ASU didn’t make the AP preseason Top 25.
Joan Bonvicini, who led the program for 17 years, posted a 24-9 record in 2005 and tied for first place in the conference that year. But the program began to slide after that, going 29-63 for the next three years before she was released with a year remaining on her contract.
Since then, the Arizona program spent more than its share of seasons as the doormat for the rest of the conference. Niya Butts, who had no prior head-coaching experience, ran the show for the next seven years, beginning with the 2008 season, but was able to complete just one winning conference record during that time. She had one 20-win season, in 2010.
Barnes, too, had her difficulties raising the Arizona program from the dead. She went 14-16 her first season and then went into a tailspin in 2017-18 when the Cats won just six games overall and two in conference play. Despite the disappointing stats, Arizona accepted an invitation to the 2018 WNIT — and went on to win it.
That proved to be the turning point. Barnes’ last two teams have risen like a Phoenix from the desert floor, winning 24 games each season. Both records were better than those at ASU, which was a sure sign that the Wildcats were going to make the annual rivalry a competitive affair.
For some perspective, however, Turner Thorne has posted seven straight 20-win seasons.
The revival of the rivalry was apparent as fans began returning for that annual match-up. Last year’s second meeting in the regular season, a 59-53 UofA win, drew 10,160 enthusiastic fans to McKale Center — the most to ever watch the two teams play each other. ASU came into the game ranked No. 16 and UofA was No. 18.
The Cats won that late January game, and also beat ASU in the Dec. 29 contest. That marked the first time Barnes has been able to sweep both games from her rival in Tempe.
Both teams were nationally-ranked going into last season’s Pac-12 Tournament, but Arizona was No. 13 (AP poll) and ASU was No. 24. The Cats made it to the second round of the tourney before losing to No. 3 Oregon, and were on track to make it into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 before the coronavirus cancelled the remainder of the postseason.
Last season’s 24-7 finish (tied for second-most wins in program history) showed the 24 wins in 2018-19 weren’t a fluke. The back-to-back 24-win seasons mark the first time that has been accomplished.
Now the surging Wildcats are padding their resume.
Arizona has won 30 of its last 36 games, the longest stretch in school history, and has been ranked in the AP poll for 17 straight weeks for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. They topped out at No. 11 last year and finished the season at No. 12.
Barnes has nine players back from last year’s squad, including a trio that no doubt was instrumental in the team getting a No. 7 preseason ranking: Aari McDonald, Cate Reese, and Sam Thomas.
McDonald (above photo), the All-American guard who decided against the WNBA draft to return for her senior season, was the leading scorer in the Pac-12 last season (20.6 ppg) and 10th in the nation. A major contributor at both ends of the court, she was also named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
The 6’2″ Reese started all 31 games last season, averaged 13.6 points and 7.5 rebounds, and was named Pac-12 Player of the Week twice. The junior was just named to the Naismith Trophy Watch for this season.
Thomas enters her senior year as one of the best defensive players in the nation, the only player in the Pac-12 last season to record 40 block while shooting nearly 40 percent from behind the arc. She has started every game during her Arizona career and last year was the team’s third-leading scorer.
That makes at least three good reasons the Wildcats should be part of March Madness this year.
Move over, Sun Devils. The Cats are in the fast lane, on the way to the postseason.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)