TUCSON — Sometimes when cruising on a long road trip, the drive goes faster than expected. Despite the distance traveled, time is made up along the way.
That sums up Adia Barnes’ journey to the Final Four.
Some might say her road has been a long one. A great college career at the University of Arizona, 12 years as a professional basketball player and eventually a return to her alma mater as head coach of the women’s basketball team.
“Basketball, for me, has changed my life,” Barnes said. “It’s brought me to over 40 countries, it’s enabled me to see the world and meet different people and it’s enabled me to coach and do something that I love to do where it doesn’t feel like I work, so I’m appreciative of basketball and thankful for it.”
In Barnes’ fifth year as coach at UArizona, the Wildcats are headed to the first Final Four in program history. On the other side tonight will be the storied Connecticut Huskies, who are making their 21st Final Four appearance.
It’s been a journey, but somehow, Barnes still finds herself ahead of schedule. Did anyone expect her to be here already?
University of Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, who previously served as the athletic director at UArizona and hired Barnes, said that even he didn’t see this type of run coming this quickly. Byrne said long-term success of the program was in mind when he made the hire.
“To see that type of success after five years is special,” Byrne said. “It’s a credit to her. It’s a credit to the University of Arizona. It’s a credit to the administration, (UArizona athletic director Dave Heeke, President Robert Robbins) and everybody over there that has led over the last four years. I’m really happy to see them having the success that they are.”
Barnes acknowledged expectations weren’t high for Arizona to advance to the tournament.
“We are underdogs and I think the thing for us is we don’t care,” Barnes said. “If we were to listen to other people, we wouldn’t have even been in the tournament or here. So I think for us, there’s zero pressure.”
Being the surprise team in the Final Four can come with disrespect. On Thursday, the NCAA posted a Final Four hype video to one of its Twitter accounts. One problem: Arizona, the only team in the Final Four not a No. 1 seed, was noticeably not included.
The Arizona women’s basketball Twitter account, @ArizonaWBB, responded to the video that has since been deleted. According to ESPN, the NCAA has apologized to the school and said the omission was not intentional.
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) April 1, 2021
“It was frustrating,” senior guard Aari McDonald said. “Definitely took it as a sign of disrespect, but it is what it is. Gotta get it together. But I mean we aren’t worried about that, we’re going to do our thing. Definitely you’re going to see that translate to the court.”
The NCAA issued a statement, saying, “We will continue to work hard to recognize all four of the Women’s Final Four teams for their incredible runs and remarkable seasons.”
Needless to say, the Wildcats will head into the national semifinal with a chip on their shoulder.
“Those are things that I think are missed sometimes and shouldn’t be because there are four teams that worked really hard to get here and have put in the same amount of work and wear the same shoes and uniforms and enjoy the experience,” Barnes said. “Stuff like that shouldn’t happen.”
Even though the Wildcats find themselves in an underdog role this weekend, their run has caught the attention of the basketball world. Sue Bird, WNBA great and Barnes’ former teammate on the Seattle Storm, said she knew when Barnes was hired that she would find success.
“To see it turn the corner so quickly, I think she’s even surprised, and I think all of us watching are just so proud of her,” Bird said. “So proud of her. You can just see it, it’s really fun to watch someone get to the Final Four for the first time.”
Bird added that it’s also fun to watch a team get back to the Final Four when they’ve been there many times. This could be said about UConn, which happens to be Bird’s alma mater.
UConn will play the role of Goliath in tonight’s matchup, making its 13th consecutive Final Four appearance and led by Paige Bueckers, the first freshman to be named Associated Press Player of the Year.
Barnes’ road to this point is a story of how all can come full circle for a potentially great moment. She’s coaching at her own alma mater, ready to face off on the biggest stage with the same team that ended her storied college career 23 years ago. The Wildcats hope to make the most of it.
“We’re blessed to be here but we’re not just satisfied being here,” Barnes said. “We’re trying to win. We came this far, so why not go for the gold? We’re excited.”