The last time fans cheered on Arizona women’s basketball in McKale Center, it was an unexpected loss to California on senior night in February 2020. The Wildcats thought they would be back in just a few weeks. They were almost assured to host the opening rounds of the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the 2019-20 season came to a screeching halt with no tournament, and the players spent last season playing in mostly empty arenas until the postseason. Those days end Thursday at 6 p.m. MST when Arizona hosts Eastern New Mexico for the first exhibition of the season.
“I think we’re all super excited, especially some of the new people that haven’t really experienced McKale and all the fans,” senior forward Cate Reese said. “So we’re really excited to play a game and just put our jerseys on and play together against a different team for the first time.”
The list of players who have never experienced actually taking the court in front of the big crowds at McKale is long. It’s not just the incoming freshmen and transfers. Many of the players who contributed to Arizona’s Final Four run have only ever seen it from the stands. Last year’s freshmen—Lauren Ware, Derin Erdogan, and Madi Conner—start the list, but Bendu Yeaney and Shaina Pellington, two of the transfers who were instrumental last season, will have their first experience playing in front of fans in McKale this season.
Head coach Adia Barnes hopes to lead the Pac-12 in attendance this season. The program is already on its way with almost 6,000 season tickets sold. With walk-up sales, that could translate into as many as 10,000 in her view.
“If you think of the venues that draw 10-15,000 people, there’s probably eight in the whole country,” Barnes said.
There is not a lot the players can do to prepare for that. The coaches can talk to them about it, but Barnes isn’t sure how much of an effect that has.
“You can’t really put it into words,” Barnes said. “I think they have to experience it, but we just talked about how much more energized you are. You feed off the crowd.”
If the fans want to see that first experience, they will have to attend in person. Neither of the Wildcats’ two exhibitions will be streamed or televised, although the radio call is available on 1400 AM on Thursday.
What the fans will see if they go will be an experiment. Barnes said she will be tweaking her lineup and rotations for a while. Early on, she will likely use substitution patterns that aren’t typical and won’t be used during most of the season. That may include “hockey line” substitutions of five players. Those abnormal substitution patterns could be in play for a while as the coaching staff works out the rotation.
“I’d say a few weeks,” Barnes said. “Because right now we are so deep. I’ve never had a team where no one’s bad. It’s funny because Koi (Love) said to me, she’s like, ‘No one sucks on the team.’ I’m like, yeah. But I thought about that because most teams you have, you’re like, ‘Okay, these two or three people, it’s gonna take a few years for them to play.’ They can’t play. We don’t have anybody like that.”
Eastern New Mexico at No. 22 Arizona
Date and time: Thursday, Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. MST
Location: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Radio and Stats: There will be no TV or live stream, but the radio call will be available on 1400 AM (KTUC). The Varsity Network app can be used to hear the call on mobile devices. In-game stats are available at Arizona Live Stats.
Last season: The Wildcats finished 21-6 and advanced to the national championship game. The ENMU Greyhounds had their season canceled due to the pandemic.
How to follow along: For regular news about the team, follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm. For live tweets of games and other updates, you can follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.