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Arizona women’s basketball notebook: On Northwestern’s zone, repeating WNIT history, and NCAA Tournament hunger

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

On Friday, the eve of the WNIT championship game, Adia Barnes and Cate Reese sat at the podium wishing they could fast forward to Saturday at noon.

“We’re ready now,” Barnes said. “The team is just pumped to play.”

“Yeah,” Reese agreed. “It’s exciting.”

When the Wildcats finally do get to step on the court, they will be greeted by a record-breaking (and possibly sold-out) crowd, then a lot a zone from Northwestern, which boasts the No. 38 defense in the country, per Her Hoop Stats.

“They’re a very well-coached team,” Barnes said. “They have good balance. it’s hard to play against a zone for an extended period of time. I think we’ve faced that a lot in the WNIT, which is fortunate for us, but it’s not as exciting as a player to play against the zone. But I think now we can beat zone and we actually have been rated throughout the year excellent against zone.

“As a player they don’t think that because we’re really good transition team, but if you look at our stats were excellent against zone. And that’s without shooting the ball extremely well from the outside. So I think that says a lot about how we share the ball, that says a lot about how we execute our zone offense, because without shooting high 30s (from 3) and being excellent against zone is pretty impressive.”

Arizona only shoots 32.6 percent from 3 as a team, but had a rare hot shooting night Wednesday in the WNIT semifinals against TCU when it made 9 of 19 from the arc.

Barnes hopes her team can stay hot Saturday.

“They gotta eat whatever they ate last game in the morning,” she joked. “I think it’s just confidence. Cate took a couple more 3s that she’ll usually will make. So her taking shots at the top of the key I mean, she’s a good shooter too. Sam Thomas being ready to take 3-point shots. Aari (McDonald) taking easy open 3-point shots, Lucia (Alonso) knocking down shots.

“And then besides that, moving the ball. I think Dominique (McBryde) and Cate have really good chemistry inside the paint. And Dominique does a good job when it goes in to her finding players, and Cate does a great job of getting it at the high post and driving. So all those things I think we just need to continue to do. We’re not changing anything because what we’ve done is worked. And it’s got us this far so we’re just doing what we do. And we want people to have to change what they do against us.”

Deja vu

When Barnes won the WNIT at Arizona as a player, her team beat, coincidentally, Northwestern. But that was all the way back in 1996, so Barnes could not compare how her emotions differ heading into Saturday’s rematch.

“It was a long time ago. I have no idea how I was feeling then,” she said. “I remember the excitement of playing in the championship. It’s funny, I didn’t even realize, because I played so many games since then, that it was Northwestern. So I think for me that’s even more significance. But anytime you’re in a championship game, and it’s one and done, and your team is playing good, I think we’re feeling good and we’re excited.”

While Barnes does not remember any specifics from the game, she now recognizes the significance of cutting down the nets in ‘96 — and how it fueled UA’s run to the NCAA Tournament the very next season.

“We have an opportunity to (cut down the nets) tomorrow and I’ve only had that opportunity like two or three times,” she said. “It’s just special. It’s meaningful and I didn’t understand when I was 18 years old what that did for the program. But that was kind of the beginning of it all. Because then after that you weren’t even thinking about the NIT. You were thinking NCAA Tournament. It was all that you’d be satisfied with.

“It changes the focus, and it just gives you way bigger goals. You’ve had a taste of success, and you want more, so I’m hoping that we’re successful tomorrow.”

Ready to empty the tank

Barnes kept Friday’s practice, described as “live prep”, short in her best attempt to keep the players fresh for Saturday’s season finale.

“You’re not going to change a ton in 24 hours,” Barnes explained. “It’s more about keeping everybody healthy.”

But once the whistle blows, the players know there is no holding back.

“I’m just excited,” Reese said. “It’s our last game, there’s nothing else after this. So I think we all have to leave it on the floor, especially for the seniors, Lindsay (Malecha) and Destiny (Graham).”

After the TCU game, McDonald and McBryde said the team is doing well physically, even though its season has been extended by a month because of its postseason run.

“I feel good and Coach Adia has been making the practices a little less hard on our body, which I think has really helped us and we’ve just gotten better each game,” Reese parroted Friday. “At the beginning of season after playing our first game, I didn’t know we’d make it this far or have the support that we have, but I think it’s great that we are coming this far.

“And I think maybe not making it to the NCAA Tournament was better for us because I think this was more of a learning experience that we needed to get to the next level and to the next step. So I think this is the best thing that could have happened to us.”

Arizona is one of just four teams still playing, the other three being Northwestern, Notre Dame and Baylor.

“It’s extremely valuable preparation for this young team,” Barnes said. “Remember, we’re returning all five starters. So the core of our team is coming back and we’re just adding some good pieces, so this is really, really good for them.”

For more on what this WNIT run means for the UA, check out this piece from our Kim Doss.