Adia Barnes ’98 has established a winning tradition at the University of Arizona and has won the hearts of Wildcat women’s basketball fans around the country. Last year — Barnes’ third season as head coach — the team won the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. This year, Barnes orchestrated the most impressive season in the history of the program.
The 2019-20 season ended, unfortunately, with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament in response to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. But what a season it was!
Barnes put together a killer lineup headed by point guard Aari McDonald. She was joined by inside presence Cate Reese, defensive stopper Sam Thomas, rebounder Dominique McBryde and long-range shooter Lucia Alonso. Barnes also developed a strong bench so Arizona could easily compete as a team eight or nine players deep.
After cruising to easy wins in their first three games, the Wildcats faced the Texas Longhorns, a Top 25 opponent, on the road. Arizona ran away to an 83-58 win. After that mid-November game, the Wildcats would be ranked in the national Top 25 for the rest of the season.
The win in Texas was a tipping point, Barnes says. “Before the season started, (the coaching staff) knew that we would be good, but we weren’t quite sure how good. Then came the game at Texas.”
With McDonald leading the nation in scoring for a time, the Wildcats burned through their nonconference slate with an 11-0 record. They then opened conference play by winning at rival Arizona State for the first time in 19 years.
A couple of weeks later, in front of a raucous crowd of over 7,400 fans at McKale Memorial Center, Arizona jumped on the eighth-ranked UCLA Bruins from the opening tip and romped to a
As McDonald said after the game, “It shows that we can hang with anyone in the conference.”
The wins and the record-breaking home crowds continued to pile up. They won at Oregon State, marking the first time in program history that the ’Cats had ever beaten a Top 10 opponent on the road. Then they beat fourth-ranked Stanford during the season’s final home weekend — their first win over a Top 5 team ever.
After reaching the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, Arizona was poised to participate in the NCAAs for the first time since 2005. But then the COVID-19 pandemic brought collegiate sports action to a sudden halt. “It was just heartbreaking for all of us,” Barnes says.
After a 24-7 season and a No. 12 ranking in the final national poll, Barnes was asked where she thinks her program is compared to where it will be in future. After giving it some thought, she replied, “I’d say we’re at about 40 percent of where I expect us to be.”
For the players and coaches who shared in this magical season, the ache of what might have been will likely fade but never disappear. With the prospect of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament being played at McKale, there was a great chance that Arizona would reach the Sweet 16 for only the second time in school history.
And Barnes knows better than most what they missed out on. In 1998, her senior year, she was on the Wildcat team that has — so far — made it further in the tournament than any other. With plenty of hard work and good coaching, next year she and the team will get another shot.