TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Arizona Women’s Basketball’s promising season came to an end Monday night at McKale Center, as the Wildcats fell to North Carolina in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.
Coming off a run to the national title game in 2021, Arizona was ranked No. 22 to start the season.
National pundits tempered expectations for this campaign after last season’s star, Aari McDonald, moved on and became the No. 3 overall pick in 2021 WNBA Draft.
Arizona started the season hot, however, but in the second game of the year, the ‘Cats upset No. 6 Louisville and started the season 11-0.
But after spending much of the year ranked in the top 10, Arizona started to slide in late February into March.
“I mean, every team has their ups and downs, and you know, you saw that with our team,” senior guard Bendu Yeaney said Monday night. “But I wouldn’t pass it up for the world. Like it was fun. It was fun to be around my teammates.”
The team simply didn’t catch fire at the right time like last year’s squad did.
“I think that we were just too high and too low sometimes,” coach Adia Barnes said Monday night. “We just didn’t click the same so I didn’t have that [same] feeling going into the tournament.”
“And I thought our maturity and our leadership and our experience would carry us a little bit further. And it just never did,” she added. “There were certain things that I just had to probably handle better throughout the year that I didn’t. And I think it really, those things were exposed in the last part of the season. Cause you saw, we just kind of started to play like that. And that’s the reality.”
The biggest issue last night and late in the season: Arizona did not have a consistent go-to scorer without McDonald.
That’s something Barnes hopes can emerge next season to compliment the team’s focus on defense.
Unfortunately, the team won’t have captain Sam Thomas on the floor next year. She finishes her final year of eligibility ranked 1st in program history in games played and started, and third all time in three-pointers made.
"These fans and this team have been everything for me,” Thomas said after Monday’s game, while fighting back tears. “Exiting the court, just looking at everyone in the arena. Just knowing it's my last time actually being on the court as a Wildcat, in my uniform, just knowing that I think the fans are gonna hopefully gonna follow me. They said they're gonna follow me on my next adventure in life. They're all like family to me and they just made this place a great place to be at."
"Just a role model in every sense of the word,” Barnes said. “Like a role model, that's what it is. That's what a student-athlete is: It is Sam… So there isn't anything she hasn't done at the best of her ability. And she's always represented us. The program. Me, in the best manner possible. And every team would love to have a team fill of Sams."
Senior starters Cate Reese and Yeaney plan to return next year for their final season of eligibility.
Ryan Fish is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9 and comes to the Sonoran Desert from California’s Central Coast after working as a reporter, sports anchor and weather forecaster in Santa Barbara. Ryan grew up in the Chicago suburbs, frequently visiting family in Tucson. Share your story ideas and important issues with Ryan by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.