TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Adia Barnes, the player, was ultra-competitive, someone who would rather knock the opposing team’s star player to the floor than watch her keep scoring baskets. An undersized post player, she scored points in bunches with a combination of grit and athleticism while helping turn the Wildcats into a Top 25 team.
Adia Barnes, the coach, returned to restore her alma mater to its past greatness, leading the Wildcats to a record start and back into the Top 25 with the same tenets that made her so successful on the court.
“It’s always more special when it’s your alma mater,” said Barnes, who played 12 professional seasons in the WNBA and overseas. “Everything started here for me. The foundation is here. That makes it special.”
Barnes and the Wildcats have created something extra special the first two months of the season.
With a 77-42 blowout of Tennessee State last week, Arizona improved to 10-0 for the best start in program history. The Wildcats have won 16 straight dating to last season, the nation’s longest active streak, and have generated a buzz in Tucson normally reserved for the men’s program.
Arizona has one of the nation’s best scorers in Aari McDonald, a stronger supporting cast around her and a shutdown defensive mentality that leaves opposing teams feeling like they’re playing against six players instead of five.
Heading into Saturday’s game against UC Santa Barbara — their final nonconference game — the pieces seem to have fallen perfectly in place for the program’s first NCAA Tournament run since 2005.
“It’s been fun and it’s been evident in our game,” McDonald said. “Everyone’s having fun, everyone’s contributing and stepping up. We’re working on ourselves and getting better, and everyone has improved on their game.”
When Barnes was hired in 2016, she figured a Tucson turnaround would take around six seasons. With one winning record in 10 previous seasons, a quick turnaround seemed unrealistic.
Arizona went 14-16 and won five conference games in Barnes’ first season, but dropped off the next year, winning six games total.
Barnes stuck to her rebuilding process and showed off her recruiting prowess, getting some of the nation’s best players to believe in her vision for the program. The combination of a talent influx and players buying into Barnes’ message pushed Arizona’s time frame forward.
The Wildcats came up short for an NCAA Tournament berth last season, but did close the season with six straight wins and a WNIT title.
“When I first got here, Arizona had not been good in a long time and I knew I could make it good again,” Barnes said. “I had faith in what I was going to do because I was going to work hard — people weren’t going to outwork me — I knew I could recruit, so there was no doubt I was going to do it. It was just a matter of time.”
The WNIT title sparked an interest around the campus and town unlike the women’s program had seen in years, maybe ever. Crowds during the run grew with each game until a capacity crowd filled McKale Center to watch the Wildcats beat Northwestern for the championship.
The excitement has carried over into this season, with bigger crowds showing up to watch Arizona’s record start.
“That WNIT game was momentum headed into this season,” McDonald said. “We took all the freshmen and transfers and showed them how to win. It boosted our confidence tremendously and we felt like we could beat any team. That’s carried on with us.”
The carryover has been accelerated with a more balanced, better defensive team this season.
McDonald had a breakout sophomore season after sitting out as a transfer the year before, finishing third nationally with 24.1 points per game last year and breaking Barnes’ single-season scoring record.
This season, McDonald has not been forced to always be a one-woman show . She can still light it up, like she did in breaking the school record with 44 points in a win over No. 22 Texas, but has gotten more help.
Sophomore Cate Reese has been a big part of that, averaging 15.2 points and 8.9 rebounds a game, with help from players like Helena Pueyo and Sam Thomas. McDonald still averages 19.8 points per game, but the better balance with Arizona’s added length and commitment to defense has led to the record start.
“Last year against great teams, if Aari didn’t have 30 points, we wouldn’t win,” Barnes said. “This year, if she’s not having her best shooting night, she’s still grabbing rebounds and playing good defense, and we can win the game.”
The Wildcats have won a lot of them so far. The next step is to carry it into the Pac-12 season.