March 1, 2024 

Even with double OT loss, Arizona making the case for itself and the Pac-12

The Wildcats need a strong finish to seal the NCAA deal

By the time the battered, exhausted Arizona Wildcats walked off the floor to appreciative cheers of a huge crowd at the McKale Center, they had to believe they have made their case to the NCAA Selection Committee.

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A team with seven players and a walk-on that joined the team just days ago took No. 8 USC to the limit before falling 95-93 in double-overtime. A team that entered the game with four straight wins, including last week’s upset against Stanford at Maples Pavilion, has to think that this late-season run counts for something.

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A team that parted ways with its leading scorer on Monday, the highest recruit in team history earlier this winter and has kept the culture together behind their head coach — they are more than a good story, they are a good team. And Thursday night, win or lose, proved it. The reward should be coming.

Arizona head coach Adia Barnes will go to the mat for her team. And more than that, she will go to the mat for the entire Pac-12 when it comes to the NCAA brackets.

“We need to have seven or eight teams in and I will be as vocal as I need to be,” said the Arizona head coach on the cusp of a defining final weekend of Pac-12 play in the conference’s current configuration.

Not surprisingly, her own team is going to be a large part of her advocacy effort.

The Wildcats swept last weekend’s road trip at the Bay Area schools, pulling the shocking upset against a Cameron Brink-less Stanford team on Friday (winning at Maples for the first time in 23 years) and then winning against a Cal team on Sunday that is much like them, fighting for every win to build an NCAA resumes.

With a NET ranking of 33 and two wins over ranked opponents, Barnes feels like her team, now at 16-13 and 8-9 (after rallying from a 1-5 start), has already done enough. But winning a game in this final weekend or in the Pac-12 Tournament next week couldn’t hurt. In fact, she believes it should seal the deal and put Arizona into the brackets for the fourth straight season.

“I think the whole country knows by now that we are an NCAA Tournament team,” Barnes said. “If not, it’s just not fair. I think there is no doubt we’ve shown that toward the end of the season. I think there’s no doubt we play in the best conference in the country. It’s deeper than any conference and I don’t think anybody could argue that.”

The Cats got so close on Thursday night. With USC star JuJu Watkins fouled out (with 20 points) before the end of regulation, Arizona pushed its short-handed roster as far as it could before coming up short. Fifth-year senior Helena Pueyo led Arizona — who had five players in double figures — with 21 points. Freshman Skylar Jones finished with 19.

“They are the No. 7 team in the country and we took them to overtime and had chances to win,” Barnes said. “I’m obviously disappointed in the loss, but our kids played their hearts out. We basically have six players. I’m proud of our players and now we have to have selective amnesia.”

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Because there is one more try at a defining regular-season win Saturday against UCLA before next week’s conference tournament in Las Vegas. The Pac-12 currently sits as the No. 1 conference nationally in the NET rankings.

At this point, Arizona could finish anywhere from fourth to eighth in the conference standings heading into the win-or-go-home portion of the season.

Regardless, she doesn’t want to see the conference shorted in terms of NCAA berths.

“To be honest, both us and Cal should be in,” Barnes said. “We absolutely should have eight or nine teams in. There’s no other conference that is as tough as ours and we have teams that will have played a much tougher schedule than some of the eighth or ninth teams in other conferences that will get in.”

Washington State at 17-13 (NET 26) and Washington at 15-13 (NET 48) will also want to make their cases as well in the next two weekends and prove that the Pac-12’s worthiness extends beyond the six ranked teams whose spots are already secure.

That the Wildcats are even in this position is perhaps the biggest surprise in a season that’s been full of them — most of them not the good kind.

On Monday, Barnes announced that leading scorer Kailyn Gilbert — who has been in and out of the lineup over the past month — is no longer on the roster.

“It just got to a point where we all needed to move in a different direction,” Barnes told The Next on Wednesday. Gilbert, a sophomore guard, was averaging 15.1 points a game. Over the last nine games where Gilbert was in and out of the lineup, Arizona went 6-3.

It was just the latest blow in a season that Barnes admitted has been “challenging.”

“I don’t mind the hard stuff, it’s nothing I can’t handle — but the stuff that’s happened (this season) are things I never could have anticipated,” Barnes said.

In December, as sophomore Maya Nnaji, the highest-rated recruit in program history, left the program to focus on her studies as she prepares for medical school. And the Wildcats have seen three season-ending injuries to Montaya Dew, Sali Kourouma and Erin Tack and had to hold an open tryout to get to an eighth active player on the roster.

“We’ve lost five people since the season started, two of them starters and probably three with Montaya. We’ve lost half of our scoring. And we’ve still weathered it,” Barnes said. “We are the only team in the conference that starts three freshmen. Credit to this group. Culture is really important to me and this has been hard.”

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Barnes said she couldn’t have seen Nnaji — who she had recruited since the eighth grade — walking away. The Gilbert situation was one that tested her team culture. Fifth-year seniors Helena Pueyo and Esmery Martinez have steadied the ship.

“Sitting your best player, that can easily split a team. Not to mention the fact that you are trying to win, but my team has rallied behind me,” Barnes said. “They have basically said, ‘If it’s us, then it’s us.’”

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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