Senior Sam Thomas grinned and shouted into the Arizona Stadium stands, where groups of Wildcats fans competed for her attention.
“Hold on one second, I’ll be right back!”
Bouncing between interviews, signing autographs with eager Arizona fans and taking photos with her teammates, Thomas was a bundle of energy.
Her announcement that she’ll return for one more season stole the show at Monday’s “Welcome Home, Cats” celebration — and lessened the sting of Sunday’s 54-53 loss to Stanford in the national championship game.
In her left hand, Thomas carried a black hat with the words “Final Four” stitched on the front. A piece of the netting from the team’s Elite Eight win over Indiana was still tied to the back.
Arizona’s team captain wore that hat backwards for much of Monday’s “Welcome Home” celebration in front of hundreds of UA fans. She smiled and laughed as fans praised with calls of “I love you, Sam!” and “Thanks for coming back!”
The Wildcats’ long-awaited return to Tucson capped a three-week stint in Texas.
Outside of their six tournament games and a few socially distanced activities in San Antonio, the team was largely confined to its hotel. Due to the NCAA’s COVID-19 protocols, the Wildcats weren’t allowed to visit with any of the family or fans that came out to watch their historical run.
The month-long absence from Tucson was both emotionally and physically taxing for the Wildcats, who were an Aari McDonald 3-pointer away from being hailed as national champions.
As the Cats made their way from the buses to the stage set up at midfield, they waved to the crowd while being showered with cheers and “U of A” chants. UA president Robert C. Robbins then addressed the gathering.
“I know you’re tired,” he said looking at the team and commending them for making the school proud.
Robbins flew back and forth between Tucson and San Antonio throughout the tournament, and watched as the Wildcats went on the unlikeliest of March runs, stringing together improbable win after improbable win and becoming the darling school of the women’s tournament.
“While many around the country didn’t believe in you, we believed in you,” Robbins said motioning to the crowd. “Most important, you believed in yourself.”
Monday’s festivities proved to be a difficult balancing act of emotions for all parties involved.
Hundreds of fans waited patiently in the 90-degree heat for their chance to see the Wildcats in person — not minding in the slightest that the team’s flight was delayed 45 minutes.
It had been over a year since the Cats or their passionate following had been in the same place at the same time since; fans were not allowed at McKale Center during the regular season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It would have been a massive celebration had the Wildcats taken down Stanford. The trophy that McDonald carried in her arms as she got up on stage would have read “National Champions” instead of “Regional Champions.” Consequently, there was an unspoken agreement between the crowd and the team that kept the volume at a mild roar instead of full-on pandemonium.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes described the arrival as a “bittersweet moment.”
“We’re sad from yesterday — we’re proud of all our hard work, and then we’re sad,” she told the crowd. “But then we come to Tucson and our hearts are full.”
The players were introduced one by one for a final salute from the fans. McDonald received “M-V-P” chants. When it was Thomas’ turn, those chants shifted to “One more year!”. Thomas, a senior, had the option to return for another year but had yet to formally reveal her plans.
With prompting from Barnes, Thomas took the microphone saying: “I love you guys so much, it’s been a great journey with my teammates, and I’m going to come back for one more year.”
The announcement drew the largest ovation of the day.
As players were released from the stage and allowed to socially interact with someone not on their team for the first time in what felt like forever, Barnes talked about what the Wildcats’ deep run meant.
She promised that it was only the beginning.
“We’re not a one-and-done there,” Barnes said of the Final Four journey. “We’re going to be there more, so everybody better watch out.”