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A story like no other: On following Arizona’s journey to national championship contender

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Sweet Sixteen - Texas A&M v Arizona Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Report the story, don’t become part of it.

This is one of the first lessons students learn in Journalism 105, the required prerequisite for any aspiring journalism major at Arizona.

A month into class, I failed at this objective in the most humiliating way possible.

As I stepped out of Saguaro Hall after a J-105 morning lecture, I opened my phone to a text and missed phone call from the Arizona women’s basketball sports information director. The tone was urgent. The message was clear.

Then-head coach Niya Butts wanted to speak to me about a column I’d written in that morning’s Daily Wildcat, accompanied by an unflattering front-page headline. My freshman legs trembled that afternoon as I walked to Richard Jefferson Gymnasium, where Butts awaited me with whistle in hand.

“Nice article you wrote today, Ezra,” Butts said as she smirked and playfully poked my chest. I kept my eyes glued behind her, trying my best to avoid direct contact. I waited a couple seconds for the kicker… and then nothing. When I looked up, Butts was waiting patiently for me to ask questions about the team’s next opponent.

The article in question was critical of Butts’ program, particularly on why Arizona was the bottom-feeder of the Pac-12 when the team had the best facilities in the conference at their disposal. The column tacitly implied Butts should be let go if Arizona didn’t start winning soon — which is, of course, what happened a year later.

But it isn’t what I wrote so much that offended Butts that day. It’s what I didn’t do — go to the source and ask Butts directly why she thought her program was underperforming. Once again, I’d failed at journalism 101.

The rest of the 2014-15 season was a learning curve for the Wildcats and for me. Being the beat writer of a struggling team isn’t glamorous or fun. Walking into an empty McKale Center on a weekday game night was frankly depressing.

Media and fan attention lagged even after Arizona did the unthinkable—upset Stanford at McKale.

So few people attended that game that security guards had to pry a few ZonaZoo members to rush the court, Arizona alum Ben Berger remembers.

“Arizona women’s basketball was not in a good place,” Berger says. “You knew they weren’t going to make any noise during the postseason. You knew probably our last game of the year would be the one or two games we played at the Pac-12 Tournament.”

It wasn’t that Butts’ teams lacked heart and talent. Players like LaBrittney Jones, Keyahndra Cannon, Malena Washington and Breanna Workman could hold their own against nearly any opponent.

Winning in the Pac-12, though, was just really dang hard. Arizona had become stagnant under Butts while Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA were perennially bringing in top recruiting classes and developing All-American level players.

By spring of 2016, it was clear the program’s tenor was out of tune. Butts was dismissed on March 1. After a long coaching search, Athletic director Greg Byrne hired Adia Barnes 35 days later.

The 2020 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament Quarterfinals began with a flurry of action. Despite an 11:30 am local tip, Arizona had come out energized against the Cal Bears, who five days earlier spoiled the Wildcats’ Senior Day with a stunning upset.

Cate Reese played one of the best games of her life in the rematch against Cal, scoring 30 points on 13-15 shooting to lead Arizona to 86-73 win. Three other Wildcats reached double figures including Aari McDonald, who had 13.

After the game, Barnes was asked about Arizona’s chances of hosting NCAA Tournament home games in front 15,000 fans. Inside the team locker room, players were basking in the win and answering questions on anything from the next day’s matchup against Oregon to inspiration behind their Tik Tok videos.

By that night, conversations at Mandalay Bay Events Center had turned on a dime. While Stanford was winding down a victory over Oregon State, the school’s administration made headlines by imploring all undergrads to leave campus in efforts to limit the novel coronavirus.

“We have to really appreciate every single day that we are healthy and enjoy,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said after beating the Beavers. “That’s what I tell our team, just play as hard as you can.”

Perhaps no team playing in Las Vegas had enjoyed each other’s company as much as Arizona.

Though the Wildcats lost in the semifinals to Sabrina Ionescu and Oregon, it was McDonald who left the court the biggest winner. Immediately following the game, her fiancée, former Arizona football player Devon Brewer, proposed from the stands, setting off an emotional celebration.

McDonald’s teammates had so much trust in one another that they were able to keep the proposal a surprise from their favorite point guard right until Brewer popped the question.

The celebration didn’t last long.

No one knew then that it would be the last time the 2019-20 Wildcats would suit up together. Two weeks later, Arizona and every other NCAA Tournament-bound team was hit with the worst news imaginable. There would be no Big Dance.

It’s not often a second chance comes around that’s better than the first one. Then again, it’s not often that someone like Aari McDonald is the person granting that second chance.

By deciding to return for her senior year, McDonald gave the Arizona women’s basketball program another opportunity to achieve March lore. Mission accomplished.

Who knows how far this team would have advanced a year ago, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have been to the Final Four.

After Arizona knocked off UConn in the national semifinals, senior guard Sam Thomas reflected on the progress the program since she was recruited to be part of Barnes’ inaugural class.

“We had to build this program but I never imagined that I’d grow this fast, playing in a national championship four years later,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ disbelief was on display as she and her teammates celebrated the biggest win in school history Friday night. For several minutes, the Wildcats hugged, danced, cried and waved to friends and family in the stands, as intimate a moment as exists on this big a stage.

Two nights later, Arizona went toe-to-toe with Stanford in the national title game. Though the Cardinal were the bigger, stronger, more talented team, Arizona fought back every time Stanford seemed on the verge of pulling away.

Though McDonald and the Wildcats couldn’t close the deal in the game’s final seconds, the loss hardly put a damper on the team’s homecoming celebration in Tucson the next day.

“I love you guys so much,” Thomas told the adoring crowd at Arizona Stadium. “This has been a great journey with my teammates. And I’m going to come back for one more year. Let’s go to the next the Natty next year.”

What a story that would be.