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Arizona women’s basketball focused on Oregon after COVID-19 scare, several postponements

Sam Thomas
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

One positive test for the novel coronavirus sent the Arizona women’s basketball team into a confusing and frightening quarantine period. That’s all it takes.

“Our team was doing so well,” head coach Adia Barnes said. “And it was affecting everybody, but it wasn’t affecting us. So I was like, ‘oh, we’re doing so well, we’ll be fine.’ So you know it’s gonna happen, but you’re not prepared for it. So I think the hardest part for me was we’re all fine one second, then the next...”

Like all Pac-12 teams, the Wildcats test every day. They use a combination of PCR and antigen tests. As of Friday, Jan. 22, those tests looked good. Everyone was negative.

Then, on Jan. 23, one member of the Wildcats’ party tested positive. It was not a player, but the contact tracing wiped out the coaching staff. On Jan. 24, the day they were scheduled to play Colorado, the team practiced without the coaches on the court.

Barnes said that the fear of catching COVID-19 and passing it on to her infant was stressful. For several days, she slept in a mask to protect her baby.

“It’s just really scary,” she said. “Like one of the hardest weeks of our careers.”

The players were able to continue working out. Lifting weights. Getting shots up. But doing so without the daily guidance of their coaches and with other concerns on their minds.

“It was just a waiting game,” Barnes said. “I think the players are really worried. I think they’re worried like, what’s gonna happen? Like, am I gonna get COVID? So they were texting me every day, because I have a four month old. So I think it was just, they were concerned. Not one player was angry. Not one player. I think they were disappointed just like I was because three games. I never anticipated that.”

There was also some confusion about when they would play again. On the morning of Jan. 26, the Pac-12 issued a press release touting the top 10 game between Arizona and UCLA scheduled for Jan. 29.

On Barnes’ radio show later that day, there were many references to the games “this weekend” against UCLA and USC, including a regular breakdown of the matchup. The implication seemed to be that those games would be played as planned on Jan. 29 and Jan. 31.

Approximately 45 minutes after the radio show, press releases from the schools announced cancellation of those games. Part of that confusion may have been related to the different quarantine rules in Arizona versus California.

“Our protocol in the state of Arizona is a seven-day quarantine,” Barnes said. “Well, we were supposed to go to L.A. and we would have been able to play, but their county rules are for 10 days. So then that’s why we couldn’t play there.”

In Arizona, after exposure to COVID-19, most people are advised to quarantine for 10 days, just like in California. However, under special circumstances, a person may be released from quarantine after just seven days.

Those circumstances include having a negative test five full days after exposure and being symptom-free since that exposure. That presumably applied to the Arizona players and most of the staff.

The silver lining is that players had time to get some more shots up and mentally recharge. So it could have been worse, but Barnes doesn’t buy into any idea of this being a blessing in disguise.

“I think that the reason why it’s a little bit tough timing, we were just starting to play better,” she said. “We’re starting to click a little bit more, we were kind of rolling. So that’s why I don’t like the timing of it. But I’d rather it now than at the end of February or March, for sure. And I do think it was a time for our players to get some rest, mentally and physically.”

While Barnes is very proud of the job her players have done keeping themselves as safe as possible so they can continue playing, there are some changes that have been made.

Players in the Pac-12 have been using the KINEXON SafeZone technology since December. The wearable proximity detectors help with contact tracing. They work in two ways.

First, if there is an infection, medical and training staff can access the data and find out who had close contact with the person and quarantine them. Second, a series of lights and sounds warn the wearer when she is too close to another person wearing a KINEXON SafeZone device.

The beeps that give an audible warning had become annoying, so Arizona had disabled the sounds while leaving the lights to warn people in real-time.

"Now the sounds are on so if anyone walks near our practice, you’ll just hear beeping,” senior forward Sam Thomas said. “Sometimes we’re all trying to stay in our own little bubble, so we don’t have anything like this happen again. So we’re all just trying to keep our distance at a healthy way and follow all the protocols.”

That doesn’t mean that they won’t still be affected by the pandemic. The Wildcats started the week thinking they would have two games this weekend—Friday against Oregon State and Monday against No. 12 Oregon. That has already taken a hit.

Oregon State announced Thursday evening that it was postponing its games against Arizona and Arizona State due to COVID-19 protocols. The Beavers already missed almost a month of games due to COVID-19 issues within their program earlier this season.

So, now, Arizona has the entire weekend to prepare for the Ducks. After dominating Oregon earlier in the season, the Wildcats have a rare opportunity to sweep the reigning Pac-12 champions. And on ESPN2, no less.

But what of the canceled games? There’s still hope that the game against UCLA will be made up.

“I want to make up every single game, but I think our conference is probably gonna try to work something out where we do it at the end of the year,” Barnes said. “I think our game against UCLA will probably be on that makeup weekend. You remember, the weekend that we play our rival team at the very end. But I just don’t know if we’re gonna be able to make up all the rest of the games. We’re gonna for sure try.”