Arizona’s mid-afternoon flight out of Pullman last Saturday was only delayed by two hours due to brutal winter storms, but it felt like more.
“I don’t care if you have a direct flight that’s 30 minutes, anything feels long after you lost,” said head coach Adia Barnes.
Before the Wildcats shuttled through the snow to Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport, they dropped a winnable road game to Washington State, which Barnes deemed to be her team’s “worst loss of the year.”
The Wildcats (15-8, 5-7) got outmuscled on the glass and their usually-stingy defense got lit up for 90 points, as they missed a big opportunity to beat a 7-16 team and pick up a sweep in the Evergreen State.
Naturally, that meant it was a long, quiet plane ride home.
“We just thought about what we had to do to get better, what we could have done to win the game and now we’re already back in practice focused on this week,” said UA forward Sam Thomas.
Arizona knows it needs to be sharper this weekend when it hosts Utah (18-5, 7-5) and Colorado (11-12, 1-11). It’s a critical homestand largely because of what is looming after it.
After battling the Mountain schools, the Wildcats will head to the Bay Area to take on No. 10 Stanford and Cal, before wrapping up the regular season at home against No. 3 Oregon and No. 9 Oregon State.
In other words, it is very possible, likely even, that Arizona will lose its last four games, meaning Utah and Colorado represent its best chance to add to its win total.
Adding another win or two is important because that is probably all it will take for the Wildcats to clinch a trip to the postseason. If they lose out? Well, then the Wildcats could be sweating it out when the brackets are revealed.
“It’s a tough way to end Pac-12,” Barnes said.
The NCAA Tournament is pretty much out of the picture for Arizona, but the WNIT is well within reach. Playing in a second-rate tournament might not sound like much of a feat, but it is for an Arizona program that has not made a postseason appearance of any kind since 2011.
“It’s really important because it shows where we’re headed,” Barnes said. “It shows where this program is going compared to where it’s been. We’re talking eight years. That’s a long time. So I think just showing the momentum and the direction the program is going, I think it’s very important for our future success, not only for recruiting but for the city and our players.
“And speaking personally, when I went to college, we should have made the (NCAA) Tournament the year we didn’t. We made the NIT and then we won the NIT. So that was a huge, pivotal point in the program because after that we were hungry for the (NCAA) Tournament and we ended up being more successful.”
Barnes does not talk to her players at-length about where they stand for a postseason bid because she wants them to stay in the moment, but they are well aware of their status and what is at stake this weekend when they welcome two beatable teams to McKale Center.
“We talked about (the postseason) at the beginning of the season, and then the last couple of games we’ve really been emphasizing that we need to get some key wins to make it to the postseason,” said UA point guard Aari McDonald.
“This weekend is a big weekend for us. We could possibly sweep.”
Here’s Aari McDonald on the importance of @ArizonaWBB’s upcoming homestand vs. Colorado and Utah, being named to two national watch lists, and hearing some boos in her return to Washington pic.twitter.com/t0i8dk36mK— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 14, 2019
.@ArizonaWBB has two big home games against Utah and Colorado this weekend that could determine if the Wildcats make the postseason.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 14, 2019
Adia Barnes explained why making the postseason, even if it’s the NIT, would be so important for the program: pic.twitter.com/IjQUzx8YUe