Fri. Nov 26th, 2021

ST. THOMAS — While Arizona’s women’s basketball team has made great strides under current head coach Adia Barnes, the Wildcats have still been overshadowed within their own conference.

Then Arizona pulled off a major upset to make it to the championship game in last season’s NCAA Tournament; now, no one is overlooking the Wildcats anymore.

“Well, things changed significantly for the program,” Barnes said Wednesday after the team’s practice for the upcoming Paradise Jam tournament. “We were put on the map nationally. We had been disrespected, and got some respect.”

Arizona — ranked No. 9 in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 poll — is one of two ranked teams taking part in this week’s tournament, which begins today at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center.

The undefeated Wildcats (4-0), playing in the Island Division, will play Vanderbilt (3-2) today, then DePaul (3-1) on Friday and three-time Paradise Jam champ Rutgers (4-1) on Saturday. All three games will begin at 4:15 p.m.

In the Reef Division, 23rd-ranked Texas A&M (4-0) will take on Pittsburgh (4-0) today, South Dakota (2-2) on Friday and Northwestern (3-1) on Saturday. The Aggies’ games will begin at 9 p.m.

Today’s other games in the Paradise Jam will see DePaul take on Rutgers at 2 p.m.; and South Dakota face Northwestern at 6:45 p.m.

Yet the focus of this year’s Paradise Jam will be on the Wildcats, the darlings of last year’s NCAA Tournament who have climbed from No. 22 in the preseason rankings to their current Top 10 spot today.

Barnes, who played at Arizona from 1994-1998, was on her way to leading the Wildcats to their third straight 20-win season — yet they were only considered the fourth-best team coming out of the Pac-12 Conference, behind Stanford, UCLA and Oregon.

Seeded third in the Mercado Regional in the NCAA Tournament, Arizona began its run to the Final Four. The Wildcats beat Stony Brook and Brigham Young, then knocked off second-seeded Texas A&M and fourth-seeded Indiana.

Then Arizona really got the public’s attention with its 69-59 victory over 17-time NCAA champion Connecticut. While the Wildcats went on to lose to Stanford 54-53 in the title game, their imprint was already set.

“We were America’s Favorite Team at the time,” Barnes said. “Everybody wanted us to win because we were the underdogs. But we brought an exciting style, and Aari [McDonald, a three-time AP All-American with the Wildcats] was such a fun player to watch. We just surprised a lot of people, which is fine with me.”

However, McDonald is gone now — the No. 3 overall draft pick by the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA Draft — and so are four other players from that team, including leading rebounder and No. 3 scorer Trinity Baptiste.

“This year, everybody’s kinda like ‘Oh, how are they going to be because their player is gone?’,” said Barnes, who was given a five-year contract extension in May. “But I think we’ve surprised some people so far. I think we have a chance to be a better team.

“We have more weapons offensively — we’re a lot bigger, we’re better on the boards and bigger inside, and have a couple more shooters. We just play in different ways, and we’re just playing pretty good team basketball.”

There’s some signs of disrespect showing again with Arizona, which was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 this season behind Stanford, UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State. Yet only the Cardinal (ranked No. 7) are currently ahead of the Wildcats in the AP Top 25; the others — No. 15 Oregon, No. 16 Oregon State and No. 19 UCLA — are all behind them.

However, Barnes isn’t worrying about that right now; her focus is on the Paradise Jam, and how it can help her players down the road.

“It’s almost like a conference tournament,” Barnes said of the three-games-in-three-days format. “That’s one of the reasons we’re playing it. Plus, it’s good preparation playing three different teams — can we turn around fast, and can we make adjustments on the fly without a lot of practice time?

“It’s a good experience, and it’s a beautiful place. I love to take my teams to experience different things, and this just seemed like a good opportunity.”

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