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WNIT championship game is trip down memory lane for Arizona

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Arizona’s WNIT run started with a rematch against Idaho State, a team the Wildcats beat to open what would turn out to be the greatest single-season turnaround in program history. In the semifinal, they ran into TCU head coach Raegan Pebley, who coached the Utah State Aggies when they eliminated Arizona from the 2011 WNIT. The final will bring yet another stop on memory lane for head coach Adia Barnes and her team.

Barnes has spent her team’s WNIT run talking about how it reminds her of her sophomore season. Back then, her team went 19-8 in the regular season, then won three games on their way to the WNIT title. It got them ready for the NCAA Tournament the next year, and Arizona’s eventual Sweet Sixteen run her senior season. That WNIT run ended with a win against the same team the Wildcats will face in Saturday’s final: the Northwestern Wildcats.

“It’s funny,” Barnes said. “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.”

After Thursday’s win over TCU, Dominique McBryde was asked if she had any advice for her teammates from her time at Purdue about playing against Northwestern.

“They are coached by a great coaching staff,” McBryde said. “A lot of those players that I played against there, I don’t think they’re back, so I don’t really know (about personnel). I just know that their coach emphasizes a lot of mental toughness and toughness down the stretch, so you know they’re going to play hard the whole entire game, so we’ve just got to match the intensity.”

There are two players still on the roster from McBryde’s days in the Big Ten. First Team All-Big Ten forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah is the lone senior on Northwestern’s roster. Junior guard Amber Jamison is back after taking a leave of absence last season. Both were freshmen at Northwestern the same year McBryde began her career with the Boilermakers.

And the leader of that coaching staff, head coach Joe McKeown, is also still there. The 62-year-old McKeown is the opposite of Barnes. A man well into his career who came into the season with 670 wins under his belt over a 32-year head coaching career.

McKeown has spent the last 11 of those years in Evanston coaching the NU Wildcats to 129 victories. This season, he led them to a 21-14 overall record and 9-9 in the Big Ten.

The mental toughness and intensity throughout the game that McBryde referred to has been needed by the NU Wildcats during their WNIT run. They have played two games at home and garnered three road victories over the course of the tournament. Only the first two—over Dayton and Toledo—could be called easy games.

NU’s last three games have been decided by a total of nine points, with their biggest win being a five-point victory at James Madison in the semifinals.

NU also had some big wins over the course of the season. They started out with an early win over then-No. 21 Duke. They dominated the Blue Devils in a 26-point victory. They also had an eight-point win over No. 15 Michigan State early in Big Ten play. Two weeks later, they followed it up with a win over No. 25 Indiana.

When it comes time to lace them up, the numbers say that Arizona should have the advantage on the offensive end. The UA Wildcats shoot 43.6 percent from the field compared to 39.8 percent for the NU Wildcats.

From inside the arc, Northwestern is shooting just 42.5 percent to Arizona’s 49.1 percent. Neither team is especially strong from beyond the 3-point line, but Arizona has a slight advantage from distance, as well. Both teams shoot just over 69 percent from the free throw line. Effective field goal percentage comes down in Arizona’s favor 49 percent to 43.3 percent.

As should surprise no one who has watched many Arizona games this season, the NU Wildcats are superior on the offensive boards. Northwestern pulls down 13 offensive rebounds per game and has a 33.9 percent offensive rebound rate compared to Arizona’s 10 offensive boards and 28.7 offensive rebound rate. Overall, the NU Wildcats gather 38.8 rebounds per game compared to 35.5 for the UA Wildcats.

What Northwestern is not going to do is try to win the game shooting 3-pointers. The NU Wildcats rank No. 266 out of 351 teams in made 3-point shots, and come in at No. 280 in attempts. The UA Wildcats rank No. 78 in both stats.

Her Hoop Stats rates Arizona higher on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. The service also has Arizona accomplishing that against a slightly tougher schedule, with both their opponents and opponents’ opponents having higher winning percentages.

Northwestern has proven that they can win on the road in the high-pressure environment of the WNIT. If Arizona hopes to repeat history from 1996, they will have to take full advantage of their slightly superior shooting and match the intensity that the NU Wildcats will bring—and take full advantage of that home crowd.

All statistics taken from Her Hoop Stats.