When the Wildcats returned after a short holiday break, one of the first things they did was practice.
Walking into that practice, coach Adia Barnes didn’t know what to expect from her team. After all, it was Dec. 26 and her players were back from four days of relaxation with their families.
What she noticed was an intensity she hadn’t seen before. The players were competing at a higher level. And she liked it.
During the shootaround before the ASU game Sunday afternoon, she noticed something else: a focus she hadn’t seen before.
These two things, focus and intensity, were keys to the Wildcats upsetting the then-No. 17 Sun Devils 51-39. That and a relentless defense — one that is ranked fourth in the nation and first in the Pac-12, holding teams to an average of 49.2 points per game.
The Wildcats extended the win streak to 10 games and picked up 15 votes for the AP’s Top 25 poll and two votes in USA Today’s coaches poll. This is a first in the Barnes coaching era.
But what does this win mean for the program and for the rebuild?
The Star talked to a roundtable of college women’s basketball analysts to find out. They are Joan Bonvicini, winningest coach in UA history, Barnes’ former coach and a Pac-12 broadcaster; Mary Murphy, a Pac-12 Networks analyst; and Debbie Antonelli, national broadcaster for ESPN, CBS, and others.
What did you think about that win over the Sun Devils?
Antonelli: “I thought Adia is ahead of schedule. I didn’t expect a signature win so quickly in her third year. It’s signature; not only a Top-25 win, but a win over a rival.”
Murphy: “I was surprised that Arizona has come this far so fast. I was excited for Adia, her staff and for the team. It was a great, big day, one that you can point to in your coaching career as you look back. It’s an important marker. Just as important is that 5,000 fans were there. It’s a statement for the people of Tucson and the fans. It says ‘we’ve been talking a lot about our improvement, now we are walking the walk. Yeah, we’re on the right road.’ It’s a very, very important thing for the program to demonstrate. It’s a great day for Arizona women’s basketball.”
Bonvicini: “I was amazed, to be honest. And very impressed. Arizona completely took Arizona State out of their comfort zone. They pressured them the way they like to pressure. ASU is a good team. Confidence is a fragile thing and Arizona took away Arizona State’s confidence.
“This weekend is big for UA women’s basketball. It will tell where they are. In the Pac-12 every game is so different, you have to really prepare. However, when you are on a win streak you have so much confidence now and more than anything they expect to win.”
In the big picture, what does this win mean for the program?
Antonelli: “They will find out right away where they are. Colorado and Utah were thought to be easier competition before the season started. But in Pac-12 you aren’t circling any W’s. They are all challenging. Even Washington can win and has some eyebrow-raising wins.”
Murphy: “It means they are 1-0 in conference, that’s all it means. Now they are on the road in Utah and Colorado and they have to go play and elevate their game. The challenges roll on. They gained confidence, but they have to do it again and again. It’s an 18-game schedule to Las Vegas and the conference tournament and they have to keep improving.
“There are two tracks: Wow, it’s a great win and then they have to go back to practice. Being 1-0 is a lot better than being 0-1.”
Bonvicini: “Any time you beat your rival, it’s big. They are on a big winning streak. If Adia puts her stamp on it, this can be the game that sets it in motion. This can set the stage. When you win a big game, like we won against Stanford when Adia was playing, the confidence level goes up again.
“It can be hard as fans want to relive the glory and as a player or a coach, it’s on to the next game. It helps with recruiting. And the good part is that 5,000 people were there and saw an exciting game that UA won. Now, they have to keep them there. I’m glad Adia upped the tempo with the team, the switching defenses. Fans like seeing that.”
As we sit in Tucson, our view can be limited. Are the Wildcats really in the national conversation?
Antonelli: “As an AP voter, I did not vote for Arizona. I took Arizo na State out of my Top 25. I think this win helps me keep track of Adia’s program. Aari (McDonald) is what, tops in scoring? Because I traditionally see the game through an offensive lens, having a scorer like Aari, I pay attention. This team is on my radar because of their success. I don’t know about their strength of schedule; it’s not the strongest but that doesn’t matter to me as much as the habits that they created. You hold Arizona State to 39 points and you know ASU’s defense and field-goal percentage defense are good. But Adia’s is very good, too.
“I wouldn’t look just at the numbers; I look at the whole body of work. That’s how I see it.”
Murphy: “I think it is important and a big day to look at the poll and see their name in there. A great day, a fun day. Every time it happens, the moment is great. We’re talking about the credibility, the recognition, for the fans. But the focus of the team is conference play. Your focus is on going to the mountains and beating Colorado and Utah and the next weekend at home with Cal and Stanford. The challenges don’t end. Every game you have to bring your best. This is a giant step forward, but there are still steps. You are not stopping and enjoying the sunshine. You have to continue to climb up the mountain.”
Bonvicini: “How people notice is continue to win against Colorado and Utah. Adia is not satisfied and has loftier goals. They need to keep the players in the moment and go one game at a time. When you have the opportunity to coach someone like Aari McDonald, who is a top scorer in the nation, it brings media attention. Then, they beat a ranked team in ASU. Now it’s a bigger story. That’s how you get attention.”
Is it too early to say that this win is the win that changed it all?
Antonelli: “It’s their first win over a ranked team and it’s their rival. It carries a little more weight. They have one signature win with the opportunity for more in a power league.”
Murphy: “I think against ASU adds to the luster. ASU came in with a good RPI and ranked and they are in-state. It’s a lightning rod and made it big and significant. It’s a great validating moment. It relieves pressure that they are on the right track, but there is still a lot of work to do.”
Bonvicini: “Writers and fans want recognition. Recognition will come with more success. It’s still early, yet the win is a win that is important. They have a lot of work to do and we’ll see how this team responds to this road trip and playing Cal and Stanford at home. You can’t get too caught up looking at big picture. Get Colorado and move from there.’
As with any Pac-12 team, we won’t know until the season progresses just how good they are. Yet, how good is the UA?
Antonelli: “We’re going to find out in the first two weeks of Pac-12 play. They will be respected and aren’t going to sneak by anyone. Every coach saw how they beat Arizona State and they know what Arizona State has. The Arizona State win brought another level. As an AP voter I am keeping an eye on them. Are they an NCAA tourney team? That’s still to be seen. They are incrementally getting better.
“I’m anxious to see how Cate Reece does. She’s a big piece. The transfers (Aari McDonald, Dominique McBryde, and Tee Tee Starks) have played at Washington, Purdue and Iowa State. They will be fine.
“Adia is a great story. Who wouldn’t want to play in Arizona?”
Murphy: “They’ve got a great player in Aari McDonald, who makes everyone else better. She’s giant and in a league with superstars. Sam Thomas and Lucia Alonso have experience. They have youth and transfers. They are still a work in progress and will have highs and tough losses. How will they handle this big win and losses? It all will unfold as season goes by.
“Fans should be super-excited. Arizona fans have had a tough go, not a lot to cheer about. This gives them hope to go and watch games — they have a chance. What is better than that? Adia loves Arizona and is not looking for her next job. This is big, when taking a step, everyone is taking it together — the administration, the team, the staff, the fans. It’s a step for all. Although, it’s not a period; it’s a dot, dot, dot. To be continued. They are starting to see results on the floor. It’s an exciting time.”
Bonvicini: “Adia is doing a fabulous job. I’m really impressed. They are out in the community doing good things and are good kids. And, Aari is only a sophomore; that’s a good thing. A really good thing. It’s scary for others teams to go against her. Dominique (McBryde) has really improved on the interior and isn’t afraid to bang.
“As Adia says it’s the little things that make a big difference. And there is little difference between good and great, and they are good.”