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Led by Aari McDonald, Arizona has a ‘different focus’ at NCAA Tournament

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Arizona v Oregon Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

Adia Barnes likes what she’s seen from the Arizona Wildcats since they arrived in San Antonio. Their practices have been louder, sharper and, yes, even a little bit shorter.

“Players are probably happy, because we only have a set 90 minutes...but there’s just a different focus,” the UA head coach said. “It’s clicking, we’re going faster, everything’s moving smoother. So that tells me there’s more of a focus. We’re talking. I think it’s just tournament time so I think at this point everybody kind of steps up a little bit and I’ve noticed that.”

That’s because everything the Wildcats have worked for this season—and last season—is finally coming to a head.

“For a lot us it’s our first time and...this is like two years in the making,” junior forward Cate Reese said. “We were supposed to go (to the tournament) last year and unfortunately everyone got cut short, but this is our time now. This is Aari (McDonald)’s last year, Trinity (Baptiste)’s last year, Sam (Thomas)’s last year, so I think it’s exciting just to be able to finish off the season and finally get our answer of how the NCAA Tournament is and how we’re all going to be able to compete together on a higher level. So I think we’re really excited and just ready to get that first game going. I mean, I feel like we’ve been here for like a month already.”

The Wildcats actually arrived in San Antonio on Tuesday, but it has been a unique experience, to be sure. Players and coaches have spent most of their time sequestered in their hotel rooms. They cannot go sightseeing or even grab a coffee in the hotel gift shop due to COVID protocols.

Barnes is sad that her players won’t get the typical NCAA Tournament experience, but the whole season has been this way, so they aren’t going to dwell on it now.

“We’ve been on the road, been on lockdown, so it’s not that different, especially for us in the Pac-12,” she said. “So we’re just really excited to be here and be playing. It has not been that bad.”

The players have been entertaining themselves by making TikToks and playing video games. Barnes is interested to see how they handle the pressure of the postseason. The Wildcats have been the underdogs for most of her head coaching tenure. Not anymore. They are a 3-seed that is about to take on a Stony Brook program that has never played in the NCAA Tournament before.

“That’s gonna be the challenge for us because last year we didn’t get to experience it,” Barnes said. “So if we would have got this experience last year, we kind of would know what to expect. And I had a talk with some players just during our testing today and said we’re in a neutral place. Usually the advantage of being the higher seed is you get to host the first couple games at home and we’d have 15,000 fans. But here it’s neutral. It’s a place that none of us have played at, we don’t know what to expect, so there’s really not an advantage. So I think you’re going to see a lot of different outcomes that are expected.

“There is going to be the nervousness but nervous is good for basketball. Scared is bad, and we don’t have any players on our team that are scared. We have a lot of players that are nervous and they get nervous. I think our trainer sometimes calls us the Pepto team or something because a lot of them get nervous stomachs, which I guess is a normal thing, but I think there’s an excitement. Everybody wants to be here, this is what they worked for and I see that in their eyes and it’s feeling every day more and more like the tournament. I don’t know how to explain that, but it’s kind of getting more real as the days go on.”

Aari McDonald said she’s seeing the same determined look from her teammates. Barnes said the All-American point guard is the catalyst for it. McDonald played in the NCAA Tournament at Washington and spurned the WNBA Draft last summer just so she could get another crack at it with Arizona.

“It’s a humbling experience right now,” McDonald said. “I’m happy and just blessed to be here and I’m pretty sure my teammates can say the same. This is what we waited for a year later and we’re finally here, so I mean it’s crazy to think we’ll be here, but definitely I’m excited and I’m just ready to play, honestly. ... It’s pretty much do or die right now, so we got to play literally like it’s gonna be our last game ever.”

For McDonald, it could be. She has already announced that she will be going pro after the season. But this week she penned a letter in The Player’s Tribune explaining why she is laser-focused on the task at hand.

“I mean, I’ll be honest: I had my heart set on declaring for the draft last year and going to the league. And I was ready. I wanted to hear my name called. That was my dream.” she wrote. “My mind kept going back to one thing...our seniors. They were all getting ready to start these new life journeys, and we couldn’t even give them a proper send-off. We couldn’t even get together and do that. And those ladies were as much a part of our incredible season as anyone. They deserved to see this team make history.

“When I thought about our seniors, something didn’t feel right about me leaving school early. I really took that to heart. I wanted to come back and achieve more. I wanted to take this program somewhere it’s never been. That’s what I came here to do. I knew the job wasn’t done. So, this is for them. This is for our seniors who never got to see an NCAA tournament.”

She added: “Not just making it to the tournament, but advancing. I’m talking Elite Eight, I’m talking Final Four. I’m talking ... who knows? All I do know is — and I really, really mean this — we can accomplish anything in this program. There is no limit.”