A season with over 20 victories. The first female McDonald’s All-American to wear the uniform. An AP All-American Honorable Mention. The biggest single-season turnaround in program history.
The 2018-19 season has featured one accomplishment after another for Arizona women’s basketball. But there’s still one more they’d like to add: a postseason title.
In 1996, Arizona ended the season with a WNIT title. Back then, though, it only took three wins to accomplish that. Fast forward 23 years, and they are on track to add another title, but it will take a lot more work.
These days, the WNIT includes 64 teams and requires the same six victories that it takes to win an NCAA title. The Wildcats have already exceeded the number of postseason wins they had in 1996, and it will take two more if they want to cut down the nets.
The city of Tucson and the University community have come along for the ride, and it’s helped the Wildcats to four relatively easy victories. They have trailed for only 31 seconds in the 160 minutes they’ve played in the WNIT. Both coach Adia Barnes and her players credit the enormous crowds with helping them do that.
“It means a lot just to see that we have like 3,000 fans already the day after we just played,” Aari McDonald said. “Just hearing them cheer for us during games, it gives us that boost of confidence.”
In the opening round, McKale Center held 3,265 fans as the Wildcats beat the Idaho State Bengals by 10 points. In the next round, the Pacific Tigers were faced with 3,534 as the Wildcats pulled off the 16-point victory. Things got serious in the third round, when 6,307 cheering Wildcat fans helped their team hold on to an eight-point victory over the Idaho Vandals.
So, Barnes asked 7,000 Wildcat faithful to show up for the quarterfinal match-up against Wyoming. She got 7,717, and the fans got a rousing 22-point victory over the Cowgirls.
Immediately after that victory, fans queued up outside McKale to buy tickets for the next round. With over 7,000 tickets sold by Tuesday evening, the Wildcats are hoping for 10,000 to show up for tip-off against the Horned Frogs on Wednesday.
They will need that support, too. TCU has already gone on the road and knocked off another high-major team. In the third round, they visited Fayetteville, Arkansas and defeated the Razorbacks, who had just completed an impressive run in the SEC Tournament.
The Wildcats will also need their inside players to play tough, smart minutes against a team led by talented upperclassmen. Those players include center Jordan Moore and forward Amy Okonkwo, two star players who are finishing their college careers. Moore leads the Frogs with 16 points per game, while Okonkwo is second in scoring with 14 ppg.
More important than Okonkwo’s numbers is how she scores them. She is the kind of versatile forward who gave Arizona difficulties early in Pac-12 play. Not only is she big and strong, blocking 1.1 shots per game and gathering 6.6 rebounds per game, but she has an outside game, too.
Okonkwo shoots 3-pointers at a rate of 4.6 attempts per game. She makes 37.2 percent of those shots.
Arizona ran into this kind of player when they faced Megan Huff of Utah and Alanna Smith of Stanford. In the first meetings with those teams, the match-ups went horribly for the Wildcats and they lost both games by wide margins.
The Wildcats will have to hope that the second chances at those teams are more indicative of how things will go against TCU. They were able to beat Utah at home, and they took Stanford to the wire on the road.
“They’re very good inside,” Barnes said. “They’re very good on the perimeter. We know that they’re complete, and we know that we have to play a good game to beat them. But we’re playing some good basketball now.”
Arizona will also need to avoid foul trouble by their interior starters, especially Dominique McBryde, if they hope to counter the inside strength of the Horned Frogs. Fouls often kept McBryde and Cate Reese on the bench in big games during the season. Over the course of the WNIT, that has not been as much of an issue.
“I think Dominique’s playing smarter now,” Barnes said. “I think it took a while. She came from Purdue, and it’s a lot more physical, so I think that was an adjustment. I think she’s matured in the sense that she’s being smarter and not picking up a third when she has two early. And, also, we’re sitting her a little sooner.
“But she’s one of our best defenders. She’s definitely our best post defender. She’s called on to guard the (Kristine) Anigwes and she’s undersized. So, that’s been a challenge, but she’s done a really good job of it. So, I think now, with her adjustment, she’s faced some of the best posts in the country, she’s ready against TCU. “
The Wildcats can be secure in the knowledge that the Horned Frogs are not on the level of Stanford. Her Hoop Stats rates TCU and Arizona as fairly evenly matched. In fact, the service rates the Wildcats at least slightly better on offense, defense and overall. They will need every bit of that “on paper” superiority and the energy from their fans if they hope to move on to the semifinals.