The Arizona Wildcats were at home for the last two games of the 2019-20 regular season. Their only real road trip since the pandemic started to assert itself in the U.S. was to the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas. That ends this week, as they head to Colorado and Utah.
“This is one of the worst trips as far as just it’s a difficult trip,” head coach Adia Barnes said.
Travel has been the biggest concern Barnes has had since it was announced that the conference would be playing basketball this winter. She has used every opportunity to lobby for chartered flights for her players. As a new mother who is responsible for 14 young women—three of whom have conditions that put them at higher risk of COVID-19 complications—it is especially important this season.
Fortunately, the Arizona athletic department came through—at least for this trip.
“I don’t know if we would be able to play this season without a charter,” Barnes said. “Because the numbers are so high. We’ve been lucky, knock on wood, to not have any situations. And I think that if we’re not chartering right now in the situation right now, and how many numbers there are, I don’t think we would continue to play for a while. So I’m thankful. I know it cost a lot of money, so I don’t take that for granted at all.”
Barnes attributed the decision to the advocacy of Dr. Stephen Paul, Director of Athletics Medicine, who heads up the department’s COVID-19 program. It has only gone so far, though. She doesn’t know if they will have charters for the other road trips.
“Go ahead and send that tweet out or something,” she said. “I want to throw it out because we can use some help on that.”
It’s always difficult to compete on the road, but Barnes says that, in her view, it’s even more so this year.
“I think it’s just a lot of stressors for student-athletes to travel because you’ve seen it across the country and in the Pac-12, people who have gone on the road are just getting smacked in a lot of places,” she said. “So definitely don’t take this road trip lightly and just a lot more adversity because of the situation.”
For at least one of the players, it’s something to look forward to.
“I know the whole COVID situation scares a lot of people with traveling,” junior transfer Bendu Yeaney said. “You know, airplanes and stuff like that. And hotels. But we’re going to be safe as possible. I’m excited to be on the road, because it’s my first road trip with the team. First Pac-12 road trip. I’ve never been to Colorado or Utah.”
That backs up Barnes’ opinion that the players would rather be under the pressure of COVID-19 protocols than not playing basketball at all.
Once they get in the arenas. it will just be basketball again. Utah and Colorado are both tough teams with talented players.
Utah has preseason All-Pac-12 Brynna Maxwell at the two and Nancy Lieberman preseason watch list honoree Dru Glyten at the one. They handed Oregon State their first loss of the season after sitting out the non-conference due to COVID-19 issues.
“Utah spreads the floor out because they have a lot of great shooters,” Barnes said. “So we just have to bring our A-game. We can’t go there and play average. We have to go and be ready to play and be ready to defend and we have to go run with them.”
Colorado just smashed Utah by 30 points last week. They have preseason All-Pac-12 honorable mention Mya Hollingshed, who’s a double-double machine. She’s put up double figures in points and rebounds in four of the Buffaloes’ six games this season. At the point is Jaylyn Sherrod, who made last year’s All-Freshman team and led the charge against the Utes.
“It’s freezing there,” Barnes said of Boulder. “It’s snowing. It’s just the altitude there. They run it up and down... they are really trying to run you. They’re a very good transition team. They’re very good offensive rebounding. This year they’re not doing it as much but in the past they did a lot of two-threes and traps and just different things like that. So really aggressive defense. Just kind of hard-nosed blue collar team.”
The loss to Colorado last year when Aari McDonald sat out with injury is still on the Wildcats’ mind.
“So excited,” Barnes said. “But it’s a challenge. And I think that we’re up for the challenge, but it’s not an easy trip at all.”