Apologies came from the NCAA, but it was just another example of the lack of respect Arizona has felt throughout the season and into the tournament.
The Wildcats, however, are having the last laugh. The No. 3 seed will face No. 1 seed Stanford with the opportunity to win the first championship in program history. Sunday’s game will mark the first time two Pac-12 teams meet in the final game.
“We believed in ourselves; our Tucson community believed in us,” Arizona senior forward Sam Thomas said. “But then after going round by round, winning more, getting more love and then thinking that we finally got some respect and obviously the video and stuff . . . it kind of was like a dagger because I thought being in the Final Four we proved ourselves being the number three seed.
“Now we’re just in it for ourselves. We’re doing this for ourselves. If people want to support us, we love it. We love the support. If people want to hate us, we’re in the national championship, so what more can you say?”
Respect — or the lack thereof — was the overarching theme heading into Sunday’s national championship game.
Arizona was the lone non-No. 1 seed to advance to the Final Four, and then it became an afterthought in the promotional video and beyond as U-Conn. and national player of the year Paige Bueckers dominated headlines. Wildcats star guard Aari McDonald is the darling of the tournament now. She posted back-to-back games of more than 30 points before dropping 26 in the 69-59 national semifinal win over the Huskies on Friday and providing a lasting image, crossing her arms after a bucket and swaying back and forth with a smirk on her face.
The disrespect isn’t only centered on the Wildcats. Stanford is a program steeped in history, with the all-time winningest coach in Division I women’s college basketball, but the tournament’s other three No. 1 seeds seemed to get more attention before the event. Bueckers, South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Texas’s Charli Collier and others brought more national recognition to their respective teams than third-team all-American Kiana Williams seemed to bring to the Cardinal. And now the championship game features a pair of teams from the Pac-12, a conference that is constantly fighting for more national appreciation.
All of those feelings came to a head as Arizona secured the win against U-Conn. Coach Adia Barnes gathered her team on the sideline and could be seen throwing up two middle fingers and using an expletive to tell the Wildcats to ignore all of the doubters.
“For me to be a coach in the Pac-12 and for me to constantly see the Pac-12 have no respect, have zero respect,” Barnes said, “and that shows with Aari being second-team all-American. It shows with Aari not being defensive player of the year. It’s continuous, and it’s always happening in the Pac-12. So now I’m hoping that with both of us in the championship game that the Pac-12 will get more respect and the East Coast bias will stop.”
Arizona and Stanford will meet for the third time this year — the Pac-12 champion Cardinal won the previous two games by an average of 20.5 points. The teams are extremely familiar with each other, but the relationships between the two programs run much deeper.
Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer has been a mentor to Barnes — she remembers coaching against the Wildcats when Barnes was a player. VanDerveer said the last text she got after Friday night’s win over South Carolina was from Barnes. The fifth-year Arizona coach said VanDerveer is the one who talked her into buying a Peloton workout bike.
“I’m really excited for Adia that she has the opportunity to coach at her alma mater, and obviously she’s doing so well,” VanDerveer said. “I respect the fact that she took over a program that was at the bottom and she’s built them up. Throughout the year I would talk to Adia about different things that were happening.
“Obviously we’re going to compete, and I want the national championship trophy to go back to Palo Alto. But I’m really proud of Adia and proud of the Pac-12 to have two teams in the national championship game. This is not something a lot of people could have imagined 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago.”
Playing a team for the third time adds a bit of a twist, but VanDerveer said she approaches it the same as any tournament game. Everyone knows what the other team’s players can do and like to do, but the coaches have the ability to be even more detailed than if they were scouting a team for the first time. Barnes said there are pros and cons to the situation. Familiarity is a plus, but it can be easier to play against a new foe.
The one thing both sides acknowledged was that these are not the same teams that met earlier in the season. The Wildcats are playing better on both ends of the floor and have a ton of momentum. On the flip side, Stanford has gained a toughness from spending nine weeks on the road after Santa Clara County (Calif.) prohibited all contact sports in late November. The team spent time practicing in a high school gym that featured several wooden backboards.
“We’ve grown so much closer because we’ve just been in hotels together for weeks on end,” Stanford freshman forward Cameron Brink said. “It’s kind of an advantage for us. … When [other teams] came to the bubble in San Antonio they didn’t really know what to expect, and we kind of knew.
“[The high school gym] really made us grittier. We just kind of laughed about it. There were a couple times where the power wasn’t working, so we were practicing in the dark. It was freezing in there. But we were just thankful to have a gym to practice in. … It made us tougher.”
All that’s left is for one of the two programs to get that final bit of respect.