Two young teams hope to use WNIT Championship appearances as springboards
TUCSON, AZ — Three years ago, Oregon lost to South Dakota in the WNIT semifinals. The game wasn’t even close. On Friday, the Ducks played in the NCAA Women’s Final Four, losing by a mere five points to Baylor, the eventual National Champions.
Last year, Indiana won the WNIT title. This season, they broke into the AP Top 25 in week 10 and made the sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
When Arizona and Northwestern met in the WNIT Championship game on Saturday, they were both looking for a title this season. They were also looking for experience to launch them to the next level in the same way it did for Oregon and Indiana.
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“I think everything happens for a reason,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “I think you’re put in situations for a reason, there’s always bigger plans, so it’s probably meant to be.”
The WNIT allowed her team to get the kind of experience that will help if Arizona ends up in the NCAA Tournament in the coming years — and Barnes fully believes that they will.
“We played different teams,” she said. “It wasn’t like every team was the same. So, then to come into the WNIT and get six games, it’s better for us (than going to the NCAA Tournament). It was better for us because we got a lot more games, a lot more practices and it was just a magical run. And (the players) got more confident as the time went on.”
Both Northwestern and Arizona relied heavily on underclassmen. NU’s only senior was starting forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who led the team in rebounding and was the second-leading scorer this season, averaging a double-double.
“We’re a really young team,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “A lot of freshmen and sophomores that have been in a leadership role. We only have one senior in Pallas, and she’s had an incredible career for us. She struggled a little bit today, and they double-teamed her, but we’ll miss her.”
On Saturday, those youngsters showed that leadership for NU. Freshman Veronica Burton led the team in scoring from the first shot to the final buzzer, when the stat sheet showed 16 points for the young guard.
Burton was joined on the All-Tournament team by teammate Lindsey Pulliam, a sophomore who scored 14 points for Northwestern in the final game of the season. It was Pulliam led her team in scoring all season. She has also averaged a team-high 34.6 minutes per game.
For Arizona, all five starters will return next season. The UA Wildcats officially featured three seniors — Destiny Graham, former walk-on Lindsey Malecha and Iowa State transfer Tee Tee Starks. Graham was the only four-year player of the three.
As for Starks, she became a starter late in the season after junior Lucia Alonso was hurt. She was classified as a senior, but still has a year of eligibility because she sat out a year at ISU with a leg injury. On Arizona’s Senior Day, she announced to the crowd and her coach that she would return for her final year.
While leading scorer and tournament MVP Aari McDonald is the focus of most fans, it’s just as important that Arizona’s strong freshman class will return. Freshman forward Cate Reese was the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer this season despite playing in a league full of imposing senior posts.
Then, there are the incoming classes. Northwestern signed the No. 28 guard and the No. 27 point guard in the country, as rated by ESPN HoopGurlz. Off-guard Laya Hartman was recruited by a number of successful programs, including Tennessee and Oregon State. Point guard Kaylah Rainey has phrases like “jet-quick” and “extra-gear speed” applied to her by scouts.
While the NU Wildcats already have a number of strong, young guards, McKeown says that Hartman can play three different positions. Both players will have time to develop behind the already strong contingent in Evanston.
For Arizona, they have another big class coming in. After dealing with depth issues for the past two seasons, Barnes signed a five-player class in 2019. While she hopes that big classes aren’t the norm going forward, transfers have forced her to bring in the equivalent of an entire starting line-up again.
The entire 2019 class is international, something that Barnes does not shy away from. Her experience playing overseas helps her understand the international system and players. Her husband and assistant coach Salvo Coppa is a native of Italy who has relationships from years of coaching in Europe.
The jewel of the class is probably Helena Pueyo of Spain, who has been described as a “versatile guard who can really shoot the ball.” Arizona’s Achilles heel has been consistent shooters who can spread the floor so McDonald and Reese can operate. Pueyo is expected to provide that.
When added to the pieces Barnes and McKeown already have in their programs, the incoming recruits could put them over the top and back into the NCAA Tournament. The experience of the WNIT will get them ready to face the special pressures of a postseason run when that time comes.
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