Arizona women's basketball team looks to build on momentum of runner-up finish

Michelle Gardner
Arizona Republic

SAN FRANCISCO — The Arizona women's basketball team may have put itself on the national radar with its march to the NCAA championship a year ago. But head coach Adia Barnes doesn't feel any different than she did this time last year.

"It doesn't feel any different and I'm not busier when it comes to media," Barnes said. "I really don't think about it that way. I just go out and do what I do. It's always about how you finish in the end. I'm excited about what we have and excited to see how we put it altogether."

Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, middle, gestures between Sam Thomas, left, and Cate Reese during an NCAA college basketball news conference at the Pac-12 Conference media day Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in San Francisco.

Barnes spoke about the historic run and expectations for the coming season at Pac-12 Women's Basketball Media Day, bringing with her Sam Thomas and Cate Reese, major players in that run.

The team lost just two players, All-American Aari McDonald, who was selected in the WNBA draft by the Atlanta Dream, and reserve forward Trinity Baptiste. Barnes says from a team leadership as well as a performance standpoint, more will be asked out of each player. McDonald's production cannot be taken up by one athlete.

"I think it's going to be by committee," Barnes said. "Sam (Thomas) is going to get more. Cate (Reese) is going to get more. We added a transfer from Vanderbilt (Koi Love). It's going to look different but we have more depth, better shooters. It should look better."

Barnes said most aspects of her job haven't changed but the one thing that has is she is more widely recognized. When she goes into the home of a recruit, that player and her family already know her backstory and the advocate she has been for working mothers. That was discussed in the national media during the team's historic run.

Opportunities have come her way too. She joined Dawn Staley's staff for USA women's basketball and was with the squad for the FIBA AmeriCup in Puerto Rico in June.

She was asked to speak at different leadership conferences and admits she had a "fan girl" moment when asked to do a podcast with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.

It all made for a very short off season.

"It was all very important," she said. "I had a chance and a platform to do something special. I would be crazy not to take advantage of that."

ASU women ready for new start

Last year was a tough one for the Arizona State women and veteran head coach Charli  Turner Thorne. The Sun Devils boasted a young team to begin with and injuries took their toll with lone returning starter Jayde Van Hyfte only playing one game before going down with a season-ending knee injury.

Turner Thorne was at Pac-12 Media Day, along with her team's top two scorers, Taya Hanson (12.6 ppg) and Jaddan Simmons (10.8 ppg).

Like many teams, they were impacted by COVID-19. Turner Thorne is excited about being able to turn the page and the return of the balance of her team.

"New year, new team and now we have five returning starters," she said. "Last year, it was like child birth. Absolute pain, that's how I felt. I just black it out. Now we're just focused on the future. I like this team. It reminds me of a lot of some of our top 10 teams, it really does."

It was the second appearance at media day for Hanson, who came when it was last held in person in 2019, and the first for Simmons.

"It's been fun getting to talk to other athlete and coaches," Simmons said. "We're all very competitive and we go at it on the court, but it's nice to be able to get to know each other in a more relaxed atmosphere."

Arizona State's Jaddan Simmons, left, smiles next to Taya Hanson as they listen to questions during Pac-12 Conference NCAA women's college basketball media day Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in San Francisco.

Gottlieb back in Pac-12

Lindsay Gottlieb was named head coach at USC five months ago. She spent the last two years as an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers but was in the Pac-12 from 2012 to 2019 as head coach at California.

USC has struggled in recent years but Gottlieb still considered it an elite job which is the reason she chose to return to the collegiate level.

"I would not have returned if it wasn't the opportunity of a lifetime. You look at the players who have come through here and it's a Mt. Rushmore of women's basketball. It's insane."

Smith battles in martial art

Charmin Smith enters her third year as head coach at Cal. But during the offseason she trained and competed in her first Muay Thai match, Thailand's national kick-boxing sport.

She studied up on the sport for five years before deciding to give it a try as a competitor. The match was held at Santa Cruz Arena, home of the Golden State Warriors G-League team. Smith lost but was happy with how competitive she proved to be against an experienced foe.

"If I had won I thought it would be easy to just kind of ride off into the sunset. Or if I had lost badly it would have been easy to say, `Enough of that'," Smith said. "But having done it, now I'm having trouble just walking away from it."

Reach the reporter at Michelle.Gardner@gannett.com or 602 444-4783.  Follow her on Twitter @MGardnerSports.

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