The Arizona Wildcats opened the 2018-19 season against Idaho State back in November, in front of 1,226 in McKale Center. Arizona would win the game 71-46.
To open the WNIT, Arizona also played against Idaho State, in front of an impressive-but-still-small crowd of 3,265. The Wildcats won that game 66-56.
Two and a half weeks later, McKale was sold out for a women’s basketball for the first time in school history. This time, Arizona was facing Northwestern, and it won yet again, claiming the WNIT championship.
2018-19 was a special season for Arizona. First, coach Adia Barnes signed the 14th-best recruiting class in the nation and second-best in the Pac-12, with the star recruit being center Cate Reese. Combined with an impressive set of transfers who had sat out in 2017-18, including Aari McDonald, the Wildcats had hope for a good season, and maybe even they’re first postseason bid since 2011.
The season started well, albeit against a weak schedule. Still, for how young this team was, Arizona impressed in November and December, going 10-1 outside the Pac-12. Although the 7-11 record in conference play was less impressive, there’s no denying the depth and strength of the conference, and so it still felt like a promising sign.
Despite this, attendance remained low. Only a couple thousand fans were in attendance for most game,s and the ZonaZoo was usually sparsely populated save for the pep band. As a student, I can’t remember ever hearing about the women’s team on campus before this season.
Over 5,000 showed up for the Arizona State game, in which the ‘Cats beat ASU, but students were on winter break for that.
The Wildcats’ 18-13 record and wins over ASU and Cal were enough to get them to the WNIT. Tucson noticed, and the first two games of the tournament against Idaho State and Pacific posted attendances in the 3,000s.
Still, students weren’t taking notice. In stepped Barnes.
In the week leading up to the third-round game against Idaho, Barnes took to Twitter and challenged the UA students to prove their support. She wanted 5,000 people to attend the game, and she got her wish, as a season0high 6,307 showed up. I sat in the ZonaZoo for this game, and while it was still a little less densely packed than the rest of McKale, there was a noticeable uptick, and the students who did show were loud and rowdy as always.
The WNIT allows the highest bidder to host games, and both Barnes and the athletic administration saw an opportunity by keeping the games in Tucson and allowing the fan support to swell. Barnes wanted 7,000 in McKale last Sunday against Wyoming, and 7,717 answered her call to see the Wildcats win by 22.
Barnes wanted even more. After the game, she told the crowd that she expected 10,000 to be there for the semifinal against TCU. Yet again, Tucson and the university responded, and a then-women’s school record 10,135 fans filled the arena. I also sat in the ZonaZoo for this game, and it was noticeably full and noticeably loud. The loudest cheer of the night was saved for when the PA announcer revealed that the night’s attendance had hit five figures.
The TCU game was exciting, and it ended in another win for Barnes and her team. Her final goal for the championship against Northwestern: 12,000. By now, she had successfully generated a lot of momentum, and the community decided they’d one-up Barnes.
It quickly became a goal to sell out McKale for women’s hoops for the first time ever, and as tickets flew off the shelves, it became realistic. A full 18 hours before the game, Barnes tweeted that the number of tickets sold officially broke the Pac-12 women’s basketball attendance record.
In a conference with powerhouses Stanford, Oregon, and almost no bad programs, Arizona was No. 1.
I was at McKale exactly an hour before tip-off on Saturday. Still, when I entered, ZonaZoo was close to full. I had to sit a few rows above, and by 11:30 (for a noon start) my row was completely occupied. It looked like the fans might have delivered on their promise and sold it out.
Arizona cruised for most of the game, and when the PA suspensefully asked what today’s attendance was, nervous energy palpably filled the air. When the sellout was announced, the building just about came down.
The Wildcats won the game and the tournament, 56-42. Most of the crowd stayed for the trophy ceremony and the cutting down of the nets, giving standing ovations to every member of the team. When Barnes said “these are the best fans in the world,” it was hard not to agree with her as one looked around the arena.
This was a young team. McDonald was an honorable mention All-American as a redshirt sophomore. Reese was dominant in the post as a true freshman. Other key players like Sam Thomas, Lucia Alonso and Dominique McBryde will be back next season. Plus, Arizona is bringing in a full recruiting class, adding even more depth to a team that had almost none just a year ago.
The Wildcats will be expected to make the 2020 NCAA Tournament, and might be even better in 2021. And now, the students and the whole of Tucson knows. Something tells me attendance will be a lot higher next season. I know I’ll be going to every game I can.
Tucson and the UA student body should be proud of themselves for meeting each of Barnes’ goals and giving a promising team their full support. They should be even more proud of the women’s basketball team, and should be prepared to cheer on some great teams in the coming years.