It was the second time is as many years that the Arizona Wildcat’s women’s basketball team notched a first round win in the NCAA tournament under Adia Barnes.
While the results were the same in the win column, the overall experience of the night could not have been more different. In 2021, the Wildcats opened against No. 14 seed Stony Brook and rolled to a 79-44 victory in a bubble with no fans. On Saturday, Arizona had to fight their way through a 72-67 win over UNLV in front of a near-packed McKale Center.
While the Cats have seen attendance numbers skyrocket over recent years, the team was without it’s raucous fanbase in the seats. Saturday was a welcome return to the type of atmosphere Barnes has talked about since taking the job in Tucson.
“When you have a chance to play in front of that type of crowd, it ignites you,” Barnes said. “It’s energizing, it’s an incredible atmosphere.”
The Rebels ran away with an early 14-9 lead through the first quarter with the Wildcats shooting just 20% from the field. But Arizona willed itself back into the game and an eventual opening round victory thanks to 30 points from Shaina Pellington, a solid 16 point performance for Cate Reese’s first game since February 20 and a clamped-down defense led by Sam Thomas.
“It’s really nice to have a player like Shaina where you feel like she can get to the basket at any moment easily,” Thomas said.
“Having someone like her, able to drive in and get those layups, it really opens up the floor for us shooters and the post players. People are going to have to sink in the paint and she still gets it done inside.
While there are many players who had significant roles in last year’s tournament run back with the team, Barnes is the first to admit the team is missing the fulcrum to last year’s success in Aari McDonald. But the Wildcats head coach does not need Aari McDonald efforts out of every player each night.
“Everybody has to do their job a little bit better because we don’t have a star,” Barnes said. “If you think of all the top teams, everybody typically has a go-to player that they can pass the ball in and score. We’re just different, and that’s OK. We have multiple players that can do different things and that’s what I like about the team.”
The next domino standing in front of the Wildcats is the North Carolina Tar Heels, who beat Stephen F. Austin 79-66 in the opening round of the tournament.
The 24-6 Tar Heels held opponents to an ACC-best 34.9% and also lead the conference in turnover margin. The Wildcats will also have to slow down All-ACC first team selection Deja Kelly.
“It’s going to be a hard game, but one thing I like…is we usually shoot the ball better at home,” Barnes said.
Barnes expects the Wildcats to shoot better than they did on Saturday, and that a potentially sold-out McKale Center could serve as a “sixth man” for Arizona.
“I would bet on us at home. I don’t take North Carolina lightly. They have some good players, but we’re also good and we didn’t play our best today.”