2016 Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament: Wildcats give Niya Butts (at least) one more game to coach
SEATTLE – LaBrittney Jones, Breanna Workman and the rest of the Arizona Wildcats knew Thursday could be the end of the road not just for 2015-16, but for their time playing under their current head coach. With news breaking earlier in the week that Niya Butts would not be returning to Arizona, the Wildcats could only play more games for her by winning in the 2016 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament. And, thanks to red-hot first-half shooting, Arizona did just that in a 74-68 upset of sixth-seeded Oregon in the first round of action Thursday in Seattle.
“I know a lot of my other teammates wanted this a lot for her. She does a lot for us and the best way for us to show our appreciation is to get this win today,” Workman said after going for 14 points and five rebounds Thursday.
“We know this is our coaching staff’s last time with us, so we just wanted to give our all for them,” Jones added after her 26-point, eight-board performance.
Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne announced Tuesday that the school would not be retaining Butts, whose contract was due to run out in June. Byrne and seemingly everybody in Tucson loved Butts as a person, but a 101-146 record and 34-110 in conference play entering the 2016 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament wasn’t going to cut it.
“I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed having Niya and her staff as part of our athletic department. They brought such a positive energy to McKale and were positive role models for the young women that came through our program,” Byrne said in a statement Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the results on the court weren’t where we needed them to be.”
The feeling is mutual. Speaking with reporters after the Wildcats punched a ticket to play third-seeded UCLA in the semifinals Friday, Butts gave what amounted to a public service announcement for Byrne and Arizona.
“I want to take this opportunity while I have a national audience to say to everybody at Arizona – from our fans, to the AD, to the administration; those guys have been fantastic to me, and I am so grateful, extremely humbled and blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of something this special,” Butts said. “I have a lot of respect for Mr. Byrne and everything he does. He’s a fantastic AD and whoever is lucky enough to sit in this seat moving forward should really, really thank God for the opportunity because it’s a special place.”
[Related video: Niya Butts, Arizona players celebrate first-round upset of Oregon]
The Wildcats came out like gangbusters against an Oregon team missing Jillian Alleyne, the heart and soul of the Ducks and the Pac-12’s all-time leading rebounder. After falling behind 17-9 in the first quarter, the Wildcats ended the first half on a 27-7 run to take a 36-24 lead into the break. Arizona was on fire from distance, going 6-for-7 from downtown in the first 20 minutes alone.
The Wildcats built a 15-point lead early in the fourth quarter before Oregon stormed back all the way to within three points late, but Arizona was able to hold off the Ducks by breaking Oregon’s full-court press and hitting clutch free throws down the stretch.
Butts was impressed with the perseverance and resiliency shown by her squad.
“They learned the news [about Butts not returning] before we came on the road, and there’s always a question of how is your group going to respond? How are they going to handle it?” Butts said. “Well, today they showed everybody how they were going to respond, how they are going to handle it. And so I’m proud of them for that.”
When the game was over, the Arizona band chanted “NIGH-uh! NIGH-uh! NIGH-uh! NIGH-uh!” in a show of support for their departing head honcho.
But she’s not quite done yet – Niya Butts has at least one more game to coach with the Wildcats.