Arizona’s Adia Barnes: Pac-12 prepared Wildcats for NCAA Tournament

Mar 22, 2024, 7:45 PM

Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes...

Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes reacts during the second half of a First Four game of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament against the Auburn Tigers at the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on March 21, 2024 in Storrs, Connecticut. The Wildcats beat the Tigers 69-59. (Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images)

Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball is back in the Round of 64 for the fourth straight year under head coach Adia Barnes, who had to quickly pivot from a First Four win over Auburn on Thursday to a matchup with Syracuse on Saturday.

The Wildcats enter the field as a No. 11 seed after defeating the Tigers 69-59, and Barnes expects to face a dynamic defense and an offense led by sharpshooter Dyaisha Fair (22 points per game). Fair was a third team All-American.

Syracuse is 23-7 this year, reaching the Big Dance for the first time since 2020-21. The Orange have the proximity advantage playing in the northeast, as UConn hosts the regional and faces Jackson State on Saturday.

Barnes said playing in the Pac-12 prepares a team for the schedule, the quick turnarounds and the competition. Seven Pac-12 schools in the conference’s final year made the cut, including the Wildcats despite their 8-10 conference record (18-15 overall).

“When you have a dynamic player, it’s really hard, but I think what makes you think and have to be on your toes against Syracuse is all the changing defenses,” Barnes told reporters. “Playing against the 3-2 or 1-3-1, a 2-3 for a long period of time can wear on you, and you have to think and look for gaps. They play kind of like a matchup zone, so we’re going to have to be smart and hit shots from the outside.

“In the Pac-12 it’s unlike every other conference where we play Friday-Sunday. So we do this all the time with seven players, with six, whatever. We do that in the Pac-12, so I think you see success in the tournament because of that. Other people play Wednesday-Saturday, Wednesday-Sunday, and we don’t, so I think we’re used to the turnaround. We’re used to having this day in between as a walk-through, a mental focus versus like a physical practice.”

The Wildcats have reached the Round of 32 in back-to-back seasons after their championship game run in 2020-21.

Syracuse head coach Felisha Legette-Jack credited Arizona as a physical defensive team, calling Helena Pueyo (10th in the nation in steals per game) a thief. Arizona forced the most turnovers in the Pac-12 this season.

“They are a really well-tuned team who’s been to a Final Four with the coach that they have right now,” Legette-Jack told the media.

The Wildcats have a younger squad with freshmen starters Jada Williams, Breya Cunningham and Skylar Jones. Cunningham and Jones said they thought it was helpful to play a game in the First Four before taking on Syracuse to earn some experience in this environment.

“This is our first NCAA Tournament every, so I feel like for us it was good to get a little feel of the game, get a little rust off because we haven’t played since the Pac-12 so I think it was good in our advantage so we could get warm and feel the courts, the rims, things like that, and get back to playing like how we’ve been playing,” Jones said.

How to watch Arizona vs. Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament

The game tips off at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN2 in Storrs, Conn.

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