When Adia Barnes became the head coach for Arizona women’s basketball in 2016, everyone she knew seemed to think it was a mistake, even though it was her alma mater.
“When I took the job, it was a bad job,” Barnes said. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t take it.’ All my mentors, friends who are legends in the game … said it was a bad job, you can’t win, it’s hard to recruit there.”
Yet Barnes’ No. 3 seed Wildcats are going to the NCAA women’s Elite Eight, and on Monday they’ll face another team that is in a regional final for the first time in program history: No. 4 seed Indiana.
The Mercado Regional saw its top two seeds, NC State and Texas A&M, go down Saturday to Indiana and Arizona, two schools with storied men’s basketball histories as national champions. And now they are making their own history on the women’s side.
“The state of Indiana is basketball,” said Hoosiers coach Teri Moren, an Indiana native who played collegiately at Purdue. “The tradition was always on the men’s side. We wanted to build our own.”
Indiana (2018) and Arizona (2019) took steps toward that by winning WNIT titles the last two years. Those championships gave both programs some needed postseason success to learn from.
This is the first time since 1997, when Notre Dame faced George Washington, that two Elite Eight first-timers are meeting in a regional final. The Irish won that matchup and then lost in the national semifinals. But Notre Dame has since won NCAA titles in 2001 and 2018 and become a national powerhouse.
Hoosiers guard Ali Patberg, an Indiana native, started her college career at Notre Dame in 2015. But she suffered an ACL injury that ended what would have been her freshman season before it began. After playing the next season at Notre Dame, Patberg said her confidence had cratered, and she transferred.
“She was broken when she arrived at Indiana,” Moren said. “But as long as she had somebody that was willing to work and be in the gym with her and love on her and laugh with her, we just sort of watched her blossom in front of us to the kid I watched in high school who played so fearlessly.”
Patberg led the Hoosiers with 17 points Saturday in their 73-70 victory over NC State.
“My journey has been very different,” Patberg said. “But, you know, it’s been perfect. I had a lot of hard battles early on. But I came to Indiana where they believed in me.”
Arizona made one previous Sweet 16: in Barnes’ senior year, 1998, when it lost in the regional semifinals to UConn. She was the Pac-10 player of the year and played in the WNBA from 1998-2004, winning a championship with Seattle her final season in the league. She also played overseas before entering coaching. She was an assistant at Washington in 2016 when the Huskies made a run to their first Women’s Final Four, and shortly after Barnes left for Arizona.
Her first season, 2016-17, was hard, as the Wildcats went 14-16. It was harder in 2017-18, when they went 6-24. But on the bench that season was guard Aari McDonald, who had come from Washington — where she was 2017 Pac-12 freshman of the year — and was sitting out her transfer season.
With McDonald in the lineup the past three years, the Wildcats went 24-13 (winning an WNIT title), 24-7 and now 19-5 and one win away from the Final Four.
Saturday, Pac-12 player of the year McDonald had one of the best games of her career at the perfect time for the Wildcats: 31 points and five rebounds in a 71-59 victory over Texas A&M. Defensively, she helped hold Aggies guard Jordan Nixon to three points after Nixon scored 35 in the second round.
“I knew what it was going to be like transferring to Arizona,” McDonald said. “I had to take everything with a grain of salt, I have to be positive knowing I was sitting out. I knew I had to get better, make my teammates better.
“What a feeling. I’m just speechless. It’s crazy. It’s exciting. It’s been amazing. It’s been a wonderful ride. It’s not over yet.”