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After long drought, Arizona women’s basketball is savoring trip to NCAA Tournament

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats knew they were a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but that didn’t take anything away from their Selection Monday celebration. They were going to go hard.

When the bracket was revealed and Arizona was announced as a 3-seed, the players put on a party in McKale Center. They jumped out of their chairs. They clapped. They danced on the Block A at center court. They filmed it and posted it on TikTok where they can re-live it anytime they’d like.

“We’re never gonna forget this moment,” star guard Aari McDonald said.

The Wildcats have waited a long time for this. Too long. It had been 16 years since Arizona’s last NCAA Tournament appearance. This felt like the longest one of all. Daily COVID-19 testing and the isolation from the outside world made the typical grind of a season twice as strenuous.

“I saw a lot more stress from people this year,” head coach Adia Barnes said. “I think just not seeing your family not going home for Christmas that was hard, but I think we’ve handled adversity really well.”

That’s because there was always the light of Selection Monday at the end of the tunnel.

Transfers like McDonald, Bendu Yeaney and Shaina Pellington participated in the tournament at their previous schools, but for the rest of Arizona’s roster, this is a moment they have dreamed of their whole lives.

Trinity Baptiste remembers growing up in Tampa and attending UConn-USF games as a kid. She’d watch the Huskies dominate and would leave the arena hoping she could be on their level one day.

Baptiste spent four seasons at Virginia Tech and always fell short of the NCAA Tournament. She couldn’t sleep Sunday night knowing her team would actually be in the field this time.

“I always had a spring break and this year I don’t get one, and I’m super excited about it,” she said. “I never wanted a spring break and I would always be at home and just knowing that one day I was going to be playing in March, playing late in March, and now that I have the opportunity as a senior, I’m just super excited.”

For McDonald, the player who has spearheaded Arizona’s resurgence, Selection Monday was validation that she made the right choice to spurn the WNBA Draft last summer so she could get another shot at the NCAA Tournament and bring the program back where it once was.

“It’s a blessing and we just put in all the hard work and it’s finally paying off,” she said. “And I think this year we have the right pieces to actually go far and make a run.”

Maybe the best part about Selection Monday is that there was no question if Arizona was going to get a bid, only who and where they were going to play. It might have been the most stress-free day of the season.

“It’s just an amazing feeling and it shows how much we’ve turned everything around,” Barnes said. “And it’s been because of the players. The players have poured their heart out. We’ve gotten some good pieces, then other other good players joined, but we’re just in the start. This is a hopefully not a one-and-done thing. This is something I hope every year we’re in this conversation and we’re at this level.”

That was about as far ahead as Barnes was willing to look. She had yet to scout Stony Brook, their first-round opponent, when she met with media Monday night.

After the bracket was revealed, she huddled her players at midcourt and told them to savor the moment and be thankful that they even have this opportunity in the first place.

At this time last year Barnes was delivering a much more somber message. The NCAA Tournament had just been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and everything they had worked for had gone to waste.

They cried, and Barnes called it the toughest moment of her career.

“I reminded them that last year we did all the work, we were getting ready to host the first two rounds and it was taken from us, so I just don’t want us to take anything for granted because things can change tomorrow,” she said Monday. “So, savor the moment, be excited, you don’t know what tomorrow brings....anything can happen. So play every game like it’s your last game and you have to be thankful that you’re blessed to play, don’t look ahead, one game at a time, and that’s just what we’re doing and we’re excited. I’m just happy for our team and happy for this program.”

But not satisfied yet.

“I really feel like we haven’t done anything yet, but that’s just me because my standards are high for myself and my teammates and my coaches and we know how far we want to go,” Baptiste said. “We’ve done great all year, but I just feel like until we really prove it, I don’t think that we’ve reached our goal yet.”