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Arizona women’s basketball honors seniors to wrap up the regular season

Four seniors were honored but only three are leaving

(L-R) Bendu Yeaney (23), Sam Thomas (14), head coach Adia Barnes, Ariyah Copeland (22), and Semaj Smith (34) celebrate senior day after Arizona women’s basketball defeats USC.
Photo by Mike Mattina / Arizona Athletics

All good things must end. That’s the case of the regular-season career of the five-year captain who will end her time with Arizona women’s basketball as the leader in starts, games, and minutes played. The player who leads all active players in the Pac-12 with steals per game (255) and is already ninth for points scored by an Arizona player. An All-Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Defense performer.

It isn’t just ending on the court, either. This student graduated in three years and will earn her master’s degree. She had the highest GPA at last year’s Final Four. She was the 2021 Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year and a 2020-21 CoSIDA First Team Academic All-American. She has already been named Acadmic All-District by CoSIDA in 2021-22. No one who roots for Arizona Athletics wants to see the end of Sam Thomas in cardinal and navy.

Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022 brought the Arizona fan base face-to-face with that reality. Thomas, along with fellow seniors Semaj Smith, Ariyah Copeland, and Bendu Yeaney, was honored after the Wildcats’ 68-59 victory over Southern California. While the Wildcats hope to be back on the court at McKale to host the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, their troubles over the past few weeks have made that a more precarious proposition than it once was.

It’s been a long road. Thomas was one of the first pieces head coach Adia Barnes brought in when she was laying the foundation for her new program. First, it was Spanish guard Lucía Alonso, Barnes’ first recruit. In 2017, Thomas was the No. 92 player in ESPN HoopGurlz’ recruiting rankings, Barnes’ first top 100 recruit.

It wasn’t just Thomas the fans said goodbye to, either. An entire family embraced the Wildcats and the fans embraced them.

Thomas may have been the first name recruit to decide Arizona was the place for her, but she wasn’t the only one on the floor who was playing in her final game after making an impact during her tenure in Tucson.

Semaj Smith was part of Barnes’ first ranked class. It was headlined by Cate Reese, but players like five-star post Smith helped push it into the top 25 that year.

Smith had her biggest impact during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. When Dominique McBryde went down to injury, Smith stepped into the starting lineup and helped the Wildcats complete the biggest turnaround in school history, improving from six wins in 2017-18 to 24 in 2018-19.

“(Smith is) probably going to pursue graduate school, or she might play a fifth year somewhere,” Barnes said. “And that’s the hard thing about Arizona. You want to bring everybody back, but there are posts coming and there’s not room.”

Grad transfer Ariyah Copeland finished her regular-season career, as well. Her dog joined her at center court to celebrate the family event.

For one player, taking part in senior day activities didn’t mean that she is leaving. After she was introduced, Yeaney took the microphone and formally announced that she will return for her super senior season next year.

Yeaney will be joined by fellow seniors Reese and Shaina Pellington, neither of whom took part in senior day festivities. The return of all three seniors means that Arizona will need someone to transfer if McDonald’s All-American Paris Clark is going to sign in April as planned. Beginning next season, super seniors’ scholarships count against the 15-scholarship limit in women’s basketball.

That is a problem for another day, though. On Saturday, it was about celebrating four young women and their impact on Arizona women’s basketball.

“You guys have changed this program and helped us change this program,” Thomas told the fans.