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Adia Barnes Out to Prove 2021 Tourney Was No Fluke

Apr 21, 2021

Adia Barnes was asked if she had anything punitive lined up for Stanford star sophomore Haley Jones for this week's USA Basketball Women's AmeriCup Team trials at Columbia, South Carolina. Barnes is an assistant on Dawn Staley's USA staff, along with Jennifer Rizzotti, USA Women's National Team assistant coach and Connecticut Sun president.

After all, it would have been easy for Barnes to say yes after Jones led Stanford to a 54-53 victory over Arizona in the national championship game two weeks ago.

"Nahhh," Barnes said with a laugh. "I'm actually glad I get to coach her instead of coaching against her. She's a really good player."

Barnes became a breakout coaching star during the NCAA Tournament, taking the Wildcats — making their first tourney appearance since 2005 — past the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.

First Final Four. First national championship game.

Oh, yeah, Arizona also beat powerhouse Connecticut 69-59 in the national semifinals.

And don't forget when Barnes was late coming out of the locker room at halftime of the national championship game and a sideline reporter revealed to the public that she had been pumping breast milk for her 6-month-old.

Needless to say, the last couple months have been quite an adventure.

"It's been a whirlwind," said Barnes, who joined South Carolina's Staley to give the Final Four two Black head coaches for the first time. "For me, I didn't know exactly how good we were going to be. I didn't know where we were at. It was a unique year. There's COVID — everything was way more emotional this year. The players were having a tough time, like not being able to do their social stuff, so I feel like this year we were kind of up and down." 

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Arizona was down after losing to UCLA 58-49 in the semifinals of the Pacific-12 Conference Tournament. But with two weeks off before the tourney began, the Wildcats had time to regroup.

"We knew we had to improve on a couple things," Barnes said. "I wasn't happy about how we were playing, because of the UCLA loss. We didn't play well. We weren't clicking on offense. Everybody kept talking about how our offense is so bad. And I was like, 'Our offense isn't bad. This is our personnel. We're not going to go out and shoot 45 percent from 3.' So we worked on some things, took a couple days off, like a mental break, and then just kind of had a second wind and just talked about the tournament, what we wanted to do ... and then we just kind of started clicking."

When Barnes graduated from Arizona in 1998, she did so having been named Pac-10 Player of the Year and as the school's career scoring leader — a title she still holds. She then went on to play seven seasons in the WNBA for four teams and also had an international career. Barnes eventually turned to coaching at the college level, joining the staff at the University of Washington in 2011.

"I thought about, 'What are the things I'm passionate about? How can I make a difference? What do I love?'" Barnes said. "And I love basketball. Basketball creates so many opportunities, and it changed my life. I love mentoring young women. I thought about, 'Gosh, if I was a player, what kind of coach would I want to be? So, all those things kind of led me to coaching."

Barnes wasn't sure if she would like it, but it turned out to be a great fit. Her personality was a bonus in the recruiting game, where Barnes was responsible for luring USA Basketball veteran Kelsey Plum to Washington.

After five years with the Huskies, the head job at her alma mater opened up after the 2015-16 season, and she jumped at the opportunity to rebuild a program that had won just 29 games the previous three years. Now, the Wildcats have three straight 20-win seasons and have joined the national conversation.

"I enjoy college, because one of the things I love about coaching is mentoring, building relationships, watching my players grow throughout the years. They come in one way they leave another. I love that process.

"And so, I don't feel like I would get that in the WNBA," she added. "I'm not saying 'never say that,' but I don't aspire to be in the WNBA. I aspire to build a really successful program in college. That's what I want. I want to be where it's not like a shock when Arizona's in the championship game. I want it to be where it's 'Oh, they're there again playing for a championship this year.' That's what I want."

Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.