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Adia Barnes, Arizona players want more student support during WNIT

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Photo by Ryan Kelapire

Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes commended the Tucson community Sunday for the way it has supported her team through its first two WNIT home games.

3,265 fans flocked to McKale Center for Thursday’s win over Idaho State, then 3,524 were in attendance Sunday when the Wildcats routed Pacific to advance to the Sweet 16, moving closer to the season-high 5,006 that showed up Dec. 30 against ASU.

“It’s great thing for me and a special feeling when I walk into the arena at 9 in the morning or 8:45 in the morning and there’s a line waiting to get tickets, asking me why isn’t the ticket office open,” Barnes said. “But that’s a really special thing that wouldn’t have happened months ago. So I’m happy with the turnout and even though it was about was a little under 4,000, it felt like (7,000). So that’s a special thing for me because people are supporting us and I think they like the way we’re playing and I think it’s a fun style to watch. So I’m just happy that Tucson is really embracing us.”

But not everyone in Tucson. The Zona Zoo, which proudly lists itself as the two-time NCSSA Student Section of the Year, has had a scant presence at women’s basketball games all season. (And, really, at all non-revenue sporting events.)

In an attempt to boost interest for the WNIT, Arizona figures like football coach Kevin Sumlin, athletic director Dave Heeke and NBA player Solomon Hill donated over 200 tickets for student use, though it hardly made a difference.

Neither did free pizza. Or free parking. Or that McKale Center is on campus. Or that it was a weekend. Or that it was a postseason game.

A disappointed Barnes can’t figure it out.

“Pizza and a free ticket, you better come out,” she said. “We don’t sell alcohol and maybe that’s what’s missing. But I don’t know what the challenge with that is, because if I was a student I would get free dinner and a free game. But I don’t know what the solution to that is. My goal is for one day to have a section that’s just crazy. ASU has one, the (Arizona) men’s team has it, so I think that’s special if we can find a way to get them into women’s basketball.”

Despite all the aforementioned reasons why students should have shown up to UA’s postseason games, ASUA Executive Vice President Matt Rein said on Twitter that attracting students is a “really, really, really hard sell”, later citing that “homework, studying, other obligations often take precedent over sports.”

In fairness, student attendance at college sporting events has fallen across the nation, so the lack of interest isn’t just an Arizona thing.

Still, senior forward Destiny Graham didn’t hide her frustration regarding the nearly-empty student section.

“I think it’s really sad and disappointing when our student section is given FREE tickets just to come to a game and they don’t show up, (except for the faithful few),” she tweeted. “Especially because women’s basketball can be just as entertaining as men! Basketball is basketball. Period.”

The ZonaZoo will have a chance to redeem itself Thursday when the Wildcats host Idaho in the third round of the WNIT. Barnes continues to set the bar high for the UA faithful.

“Our goal is to get 5,000 (fans) at the next game, pack the house and just make this place really hard to play in,” she said. “You guys are the sixth man, for sure. When there’s (5,000), it’s going to feel like there’s (10,000). So I want to pack the lower bowl and encourage people to go out and get tickets. Bring a friend or a neighbor. That’s what we’re trying to do: recruit some more people because it’s good basketball and it’s going to be a really good team we play on Thursday at 6:30. And I mean for $8, this is a pretty good product on the floor.”

The Wildcats have reached the 20-win mark for the first time since 2011, and have won two postseason games in a season for the first time since 1998. Sunday, Aari McDonald became just the fourth player in Pac-12 history to score 800 or more points in a season.

“Our big thing with our team is leave a legacy, so they’re starting to do that,” Barnes said. “I just want them to keep on going and feeling good, and they want to win to the WNIT. That’s what our goal is and we’re trying to get there. It’s one game at a time.”