Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Arizona is right where they need to be, still playing

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Hold on a second, Adia Barnes says, she’s got to grab the other line ringing on her cell phone.

After a minute or so, the Arizona coach is back.

A woman made a donation to the women’s basketball program earlier in the day and Barnes had left a voicemail to say thank you. The woman was calling back, and Barnes was working on getting her a couple of T-shirts for Wednesday night’s game.

That’s right. Wednesday night’s game. While the Oregon Ducks are on their way to Tampa to play in their first NCAA Women's Final Four on Friday night against Baylor, the Arizona Wildcats are still playing as well.

Barnes’ team (22-13) will take the floor at the McKale Center Wednesday night against TCU (24-10) in the semifinals of the WNIT, the program’s first WNIT semifinal appearance since 1996. That team won the WNIT, with Barnes – the program’s all-time leading scorer – at the helm.

And they will do it in front of more than 8,000 of their friends.

“The last update I got, we were over 7,000 and in our last game, we had about 2,000 walk-ups so, I am thinking there might be at least 8,500 there,” Barnes said. In four WNIT games so far, Arizona has averaged more than 5,200 fans per game.

Earlier in the week, Barnes – at the prodding of star player Aari McDonald – set a goal of 10,000 fans to watch Wednesday’s game.

“This is just fun. We are having fun with all the people who are coming to these games,” Barnes said. “I pulled up to work and there’s a line outside of people buying tickets. We are just enjoying the ride at this point.”

But if Barnes is feeling a little bit like PT Barnum these days – her phone has been buzzing non-stop for days - she’s also trying to coach an up-and-coming basketball team through a vital experience. The Wildcats have 22 wins in a season for the first time since 2004, a 16-win improvement from a season ago.

“Only a few teams are playing right now, and we are one of them,” Barnes said. “This is a big thing for us. The WNIT is where we are at right now and it’s exactly what we need. We have already played four games. Now a 5th game and hopefully a 6th.”

All these games equal more time on the floor together, more practice time, more time playing in the one-and-done situations that make a team tougher.

“And we have played all different kinds of opponents,” Barnes said. “Teams that are completely different than anyone in the Pac-12.”

Barnes said she has seen her team adjust accordingly. McDonald has continued her record-setting scoring season, putting up 25 points against Wyoming in the quarterfinals. Freshman Cate Reese became the first freshman in school history to score at least 20 points in a postseason game.

“People have stepped up their games and I have seen some growth that makes me really optimistic about our future,” Barnes said. “Have we turned the program around completely? Not yet. But we are moving in the right direction and we are moving fast.”

And while her team is getting better, the Tucson community is getting on board.

“The city is going bananas over this,” Barnes said. “There are signs all over town. Every news station has been out, we’ve been on the radio. This is great for Tucson. It has not been like this for a very long time.

Should the Wildcats win on Wednesday, they would likely get another chance to host the WNIT title game, thanks to these large crowds.

“People are so excited for us. They are having fun and they love what we are doing,” Barnes said. “I think people are feeling really connected to us. They feel like they are a part of this. Our kids are playing hard and doing the right things and they are such appreciative, inspiring young women. I’m hearing that a lot from people. They feel a connection to our kids, and that’s what I like to see.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page. She was just named winner of the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball.

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