A Season Unlike Any Other: Arizona Women's Basketball Reaches New Heights

Adia Barnes

University of Arizona women's basketball head coach Adia Barnes.

Mike Mattina/Arizona Athletics

It's already a "Sweet 16" of sorts for the University of Arizona women's basketball team, and the NCAA Tournament hasn't even started yet.

Aari McDonald

Pac-12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald.

Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

On March 15, the 11th-ranked Wildcats will be involved in Selection Monday – women's college basketball's annual bracket selection show – for the first time in 16 years, after rolling through a pandemic-altered year to one of the best seasons in the program's history. The Wildcats are projected as a No. 3 seed in multiple bracket predictions.

"In a year that has presented so many challenges, I am so proud of how our players have handled themselves this year," said head coach Adia Barnes. "This group of extraordinary women has put in so many hours to take this program to the NCAA Tournament, and I can't wait to see them play on the biggest stage. The best is yet to come."

The Wildcats (16-5 overall, 13-4 Pac-12) were picked to finish in second in the Pac-12 Conference at the beginning of the season, and that is precisely where they finished. Arizona won 13 conference games – the most since the 2003-2004 season – and finished the season second in the Pac-12, behind the powerhouse Stanford Cardinal, ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Wildcats have not finished in second or better since the 2003-2004 season, when Arizona was co-Pac-10 champion.

Throughout the year, Arizona has been ranked in the top 10 by The Associated Press in 13 of 15 polls. In fact, the Wildcats have ranked in the top 25 for 33 straight weeks dating back to last season.

Along the way, a number of Wildcats earned high-profile accolades, including Barnes and star players Aari McDonald, Sam Thomas, Cate Reese, Trinity Baptiste and Lauren Ware.

McDonald was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, while Thomas was named Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, along with her nominations to the All-Pac-12 and All-Defense squads.

McDonald also is a finalist for the Wooden Award and the Nancy Lieberman Point Guard of the Year Award. And she is a semifinalist for the Naismith Player of the Year and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.

Barnes has been named a semifinalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year Award.

Reese and Baptiste earned All-Pac-12 accolades, and Ware was named an honorable mention to the All-Freshman Team.

The season started a little later than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also restricted fans from packing the stands at McKale Memorial Center.

On Nov. 29, 2020, Arizona faced off against Northern Arizona in the first game of the season. The Wildcats won 76-63 in their only non-conference game before conference play.

Six days later, Arizona welcomed No. 9 UCLA to McKale Center for an early top-10 matchup, which the Wildcats won 68-65. Arizona went on to win the next five games, including a dominating 28-point win over rival Arizona State.

On New Year's Day, top-ranked Stanford came to town and handed the Wildcats their first loss of the 2020-2021 season, but Arizona responded well, beating Cal by 36 points two days later.

After their first canceled game of the season, against Washington, the Wildcats had another loss, to Washington State, for their second loss in three games.

That woke the Wildcats up.

Arizona went on to win seven straight games, with four other games getting canceled. In that time, Arizona swept the Oregon Ducks for the first time in 10 years and was one of the hottest teams in the nation.

The Wildcats entered the Pac-12 Tournament coming off a pair of losses, but bounced back once again, beating Washington State 60-44 in the quarterfinals. Arizona advanced to play UCLA in the semifinals but came up short in a defensive battle.

Now, Arizona awaits its NCAA Tournament fate. The selection committee has until March 15 to make its decision.

The Women's NCAA Tournament begins on March 21 and will take place in the San Antonio area.


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