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Return to Washington will be emotional for Arizona’s Adia Barnes, Aari McDonald

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Adia Barnes will be returning to her second home when the Arizona Wildcats face the Washington Huskies in Seattle on Thursday.

Emotions will be running high.

“I love that city, I love the people. It’s a strong basketball community, especially for women’s basketball,” the UA coach said Tuesday. “It’s going to be an exciting game.”

After all, it is Seattle where Barnes formed some of her fondest memories. It all started in 2002 when Barnes signed with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. She spent three seasons with the organization, won a championship in 2004 and was eventually was named to its All-Decade Team.

Then when Barnes’ playing career ended, she re-joined the Storm as a radio and TV analyst, a position she held for 10 years.

All the while, Barnes was named Director of Player and Coach Development at Seattle Academy in 2010 and her excellence there helped her land an assistant coaching position at the University of Washington in 2011.

Barnes’ recruiting prowess — she was instrumental in the recruitment of NCAA all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum — was key for the Huskies when they reached their first-ever Final Four in 2016.

Barnes was named Arizona’s head coach later that year, ending her time in the Pacific Northwest, but her love for the Emerald City remains strong.

“My son was born there, Salvo (Coppa) and I got married there, so there’s so many emotional ties to Washington,” Barnes said. “Just playing professionally there, I never thought I’d live in Seattle. In 2002 I went there as a WNBA player, tried out as a free agent, made the team, did a ton of community service there, started my non-profit foundation there. There are so many ties to the city that are really sentimental for me. It’s just a special place with some of my dearest friends.”

Not the same UW program

A lot has changed for the Huskies since Barnes left for Tucson. Then-head coach Mike Neighbors was hired away by Arkansas and UW lost transcendent stars like Plum and Chantel Osahor to graduation.

As a result, Washington immediately went from being the best team in the Pac-12 to the worst. The Huskies are 1-10 in conference play entering Thursday’s game and went 1-17 in league play last season.

“It’s just the process of rebuilding,” said Barnes, whose team is 4-6. “It’s the same thing with where we’re at. The difference is just recruiting. You just have to recruit and when you lose players like Kelsey Plum and Chantel, your program is going to take a dive. … The process of rebuilding is not easy. It doesn’t happen in a year or two. We’re at year three and we have a long way to go. I think Washington is in the same situation.”

Still, Barnes will see a few familiar faces when she leads the Wildcats into Alaska Airlines Arena on Thursday. She recruited or coached several of UW’s current players, including leading scorer and rebounder Amber Melgoza, Jenna Moser, and Hannah Johnson.

“Even the administration, I love the administration,” Barnes said. “I have the utmost respect for Jen Cohen, their AD, a lot of the academic advisers, who I have a really, really close relationship with. So I do love a lot about that school.”

Aari also returning to UW

Arizona star point guard Aari McDonald was an all-conference freshman at Washington when the Huskies reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2017, sharing a backcourt with Plum.

However, that was McDonald’s first and last season at Washington, as she transferred to Arizona to reunite with Barnes after UW was forced to make a coaching change.

Thursday’s game will be McDonald’s first time playing in Seattle as a visitor, but Barnes doesn’t think she will be under any additional pressure to perform.

“She wasn’t there a long time and she was there with a different staff,” Barnes said of McDonald, who was unavailable to the media. “I don’t think there are any sentimental ties, but she has friends there and she did play there and has fond memories with a top team. When Aari was there, it was a Sweet 16 team. I think those are emotions as a young kid, but I don’t think she really feels any pressure or stress for it. It’s just another game and Aari doesn’t get rattled too easily.”

McDonald snubbed

Barnes was disappointed and surprised that McDonald did not make the Wooden Late Season Top 20 Watch List, which was released Tuesday.

McDonald is second in the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game.

“I think she is an elite player in the country,” Barnes said. “She’s someone who’s not only great offensively but she’s great defensively.”

Barnes has a theory as to why McDonald was omitted.

“Not because of her skill, but because of where the program is,” Barnes said. “I think if we were a top-20 team, if we were top three or four in the Pac-12, she would be on that list. But Aari is an underdog, she’s a blue-collar worker, so I think this is going to motivate her a lot more and it should.”