Adia Barnes, Aari McDonald and the Arizona team that nobody believed in

SAN ANTONIO – Even in the cavernous Alamodome and in front of a national television audience, Adia Barnes only saw the faces in the group. Her Arizona Wildcats had killed a giant, and she had one more message for those doubters who had underestimated her team. The trainer let go with a euphoric spell and quickly threw up the middle finger on both hands.

If the underdog Arizona, a number 3 and in the women’s first Final Four, hadn’t immediately become the tournament darling Victory over Barnes ‘eleven-time national champion UConn, Barnes’ now viral moment, captured the unbridled joy and enthusiasm that defines their program as well as a legion of new fans.

“I’m just me. I don’t know how to be anything else,” said Barnes. “I just do what I feel.”

Under normal circumstances, Tara VanDerveer, who is trying to win her first national championship in 29 years, would be the sentimental favorite in Sunday’s NCAA women’s title game (6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN / ESPN app). But Arizona’s Barnes and the Wildcats have become the roster for anyone who has ever felt overlooked and underrated.

Maybe it’s because she seems so reliable and tweets that her 6½ month old daughter “spat on and pooped” on the day of the national semifinals before 5am. Or maybe it’s the calm, confident demeanor that was just as cool as her Versace sneakers when she led the Wildcats to the biggest win in program history later that night. With Basketball players, coaches and fans who ask questions Barnes is the epitome of determination, hope and big dreams.

“I have a feeling your team feeds off you. I think we are confident,” said Barnes. “The team I see is a reflection of me. I was shabby. I wasn’t afraid. I was tough, physically. I was always too small and always had a chip on my shoulder. I hope they get that off.” get me because I’m proud of it. “

Sunday’s championship game marks the first All-Pac-12 final in the NCAA tournament for women or men, and the league is guaranteed the first women’s title since VanDerveers last won in 1992. The Pac-12 has steadily gained ground, especially in recent years. The league has had four first-time Final Four teams in the past six seasons, and Barnes coached two of them: as assistant to Washington in 2016 and now as head coach at Arizona. And now she’s just the second Division I college basketball coach to lead her team to the national championship game as head coach in her first NCAA tournament. In 1983 she moved to Louisiana Tech’s co-head coach Leon Barmore.

Barnes wasn’t a heavily recruited San Diego player in the early 1990s. But then Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini saw the same things in Barnes as a high school graduate that people now see in her as a coach: a competitive spirit, an aggressiveness, a natural leadership mentality.

“There was something about Adia that I really liked,” said Bonvicini. “Adia always said that I saw something in her before she even saw it in herself. But she was immediately good for us.”

As an undersized striker, Barnes was Senior League Player of the Year and led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16, where they fell to UConn in 1998. Friday night, 23 years later, another scratchy player she coached, 5-foot-6 guard Aari McDonald, had 26 points and seven rebounds in the Wildcats’ lead over UConn.

McDonald was one of 10 players named to the WBCA’s All-American team on Saturday, but Barnes still believes it’s underrated. In the Final Four video made by the NCAA, somehow add that to it I forgot to lock up the wild cats, the fact that so few picked them to even make it to the Final Four … it was all fuel for Barnes’ fire.

She played professionally in the WNBA and overseas where she met her husband, Salvo Coppa, who is one of her assistant coaches. The two balanced their work and two children while building a program that has become the story of the 2021 Women’s Tournament.

Barnes’ contract was renewed at the beginning of the tournament and she talked about not listening when people told her not accepting the job in Arizonathat it would be too difficult to recruit, let alone win there.

The Wildcats went between 14 and 16 in their first 2016/17 season and had even more problems the following year. They went between 6 and 24 when McDonald, the 2017 Pac-12 newcomer, left Washington after moving. Arizona won 24 games in each of the last two seasons and won the WNIT title in 2019. Back in the NCAA for the first time since 2005, the Wildcats had never made the Sweet 16 behind them. Now they could be 40 minutes away from their first national championship.

When they aren’t competing, VanDerveer admits she usually has roots for Barnes and says she loves everything Barnes brings to the sport and how she looked after her alma mater.

“You’re not a one-trick pony,” said VanDerveer. “I respect the fact that she took over a program that was at the bottom and she built it.

“We’re going to compete and I want the national championship title to return to Palo Alto. But I’m really proud of Adia.”

Barnes could become the second former WNBA player to win an NCAA coaching championship after South Carolina’s Dawn Staley in 2017 third black woman to win the title, after Carolyn Peck in Purdue 1999 and Staley.

“Coach Barnes is a tough cookie,” said McDonald. “I don’t know how she does the things that she does – be a mother, be a trainer. But she finds the time and she has the right people to help her.

“To see what she’s doing, she’s creating opportunities on this platform for mothers, for black women all over the country. It’s very inspiring. She’s an amazing person to be here.”

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