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Michelle Smith: Barnes, VanDerveer to take part in historic women's basketball national championship

Apr 4, 2021

On those days in the past five years since Adia Barnes became the head coach of the Arizona Wildcats that she found she needed a piece of advice, a sense of perspective or a dose of honesty, she’s known who she could call - Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.

The dean of women’s basketball coaches in the Pac-12 has been both a mentor and a trusted advisor to Barnes, and on many days, even a cheerleader.

Just not on Sunday.

“She always tells me she’s rooting for me, except when we play Stanford,” Barnes said.

Barnes and VanDerveer will take part in an historic face-off Sunday, the two teams they lead becoming the first Pac-12 teams ever to compete for the NCAA women’s basketball championship.

For VanDerveer, it is an opportunity for the Hall of Famer and winningest coach in the sport to end a 29-year gap between national titles, the last one coming back in 1992 several years before a single one of her players was even born.

For Barnes, this is a heady moment, as she has taken her scrappy, motivated team to the NCAA title game in her first tournament appearance as a head coach. She could probably use some wise words right now, but they won’t be coming from VanDerveer. 

Still, the two coaches exchanged congratulatory texts on Friday night after their Final Four victory and a lot of mutual admiration on Saturday morning.

“I have so much respect for Tara and it started when I was a student-athlete,” Barnes said. “In my career as a player at Arizona we beat Stanford one time, it was a buzzer-beater from like 80-feet. She has such a good program and she’s such a great coach, one of the best in the business so I have so much respect for her and what she’s done.”

Barnes said VanDerveer is someone she knows she can call with a question and she will always get an honest answer.

“And it’s not just honesty to benefit Stanford,” Barnes said. “I can ask her a question about scheduling or her opinion about something, and it’s always going to be honest whether it will help Stanford or not. I think it’s very rare to have someone who supports you and wants you to do well but then competes against you.

“She’s very secure, and she should be, and just wants to help women develop and wants to grow the game. She’s an advocate for the game and an advocate for the Pac-12 and women’s basketball and I just have the most respect for her.”

VanDerveer’s longevity - and the fact that she is still in a position to lead her team to a national title 29 years after the last one, with many Final Four appearances in between, is also something that Barnes admires.

“It's one thing to be successful one year or go to the top once or twice,” Barnes said. “But to have sustained success, that’s really meaningful and I aspire to do that one day. I hope I’m here many more times.”

VanDerveer said she respects what Barnes has done at Arizona, reviving the program she played for in a stellar collegiate career.

“I’m really excited for Adia,” VanDerveer said. “The fact that she took over the program that was at the bottom, and built them up and their team is playing really well. Throughout the year I would talk to Adia. Obviously, we are going to compete and I want the national championship trophy to come to Palo Alto, but I’m also proud of the Pac-12 because this is not something a lot of people would have imagined 10, 15 or 20 years ago.”

VanDerveer said she always wants to help young coaches develop and succeed.

“Just not help them to beat us.”