Arizona women's basketball: Tucson gets on board

Aari McDonald.Photo by Andy Morales,

Anthony Gimino

The might not be a more fun team to watch in Tucson right now than the Arizona women's basketball team.

The Wildcats started the season with a 13-0 run and earned a No. 18 national ranking before running into a monster of a Pac-12 gauntlet -- playing at now-No. 8 UCLA, before coming home to for No. 3 Oregon State and No. 2 Oregon.

Arizona lost all three games but tool the Beavers and Ducks into the final minute, and the Cats played before more than 13,000 fans over Friday night and Sunday afternoon at McKale Center. If you were watching on TV and closed your eyes, the crowd noise made it sound like you have tuned in to an UA men's home game.

"I think Tucson is embracing our team," fourth-year coach Adia Barnes said after a 71-64 loss to Oregon. "I think it shows how much this program has changed. We're a fun team to watch. We play hard, we play with heart. That's our identity.

"We're getting there. We're not there yet but we're getting there. I think everybody is supporting that."

This team became local darlings when they won six postseason games -- all at home -- to win the 2019 NIT. Now, Barnes has things building to where Tucson can embrace more than this team. The Wildcats can be good for a long time, with Tucson falling in love with this program.

Read Javier Morales' story at Arizona Wildcats continue to climb the mountain

It might not be unlike when Arizona softball became elite in the late 1980s and early 1990s, establishing arguably the best fan base in the country for about three decades. Sure, winning helps, but Barnes has also connected with the community through her personality and accessibility. My guess is that fans can feel close to this team in ways that don't happen at other sports at Arizona.

There is still room on the Wildcats women's basketball bandwagon, and the most fun time is when you jump on early and enjoy the ride.

The Wildcats, led by fourth-year junior whirlwind guard Aari McDonald -- a potential first-round pick in this year's WNBA draft -- and sophomore forward Cate Reese aren't quite top-10 worthy yet. But maybe in the neat future? That's not the crazy notion is was before Barnes was hired after the team went 3-15 in conference play in 2015-16.

"The takeaway from this weekend is we're not quite there," Barnes said. "We are close but they are a better team. ... Oregon's better. They've been there before."