No. 19 Arizona relishing chance to host NCAA Tournament

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Adia Barnes led Arizona’s rise to national prominence as a player, guiding the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament three of her four years in the desert. She returned to coach at her alma mater and spearheaded a return to national prominence.

Now the 19th-ranked Wildcats get a chance to host NCAA Tournament games for the first time since her playing days.

No. 4 seed Arizona (20-7) hosts No. 13 UNLV on Saturday at McKale Center in the first round of the Greensboro Region, right after North Carolina faces Stephen F. Austin. The Wildcats are hosting NCAA Tournament games for the first time since 1998.

“First two rounds in Tucson, I think it’s extremely exciting,” Barnes said Friday. “One of the best venues in the country and we’re playing a really good team, so I think it’s going to be a great game for women’s basketball. So extremely excited that March is here.”

Arizona had fallen into dire straights before Barnes arrived in 2016, winning 11 Pac-12 games the previous four seasons. Barnes gradually built her alma mater back up, winning the 2019 WNIT championship, then leading the Wildcats to last season’s national championship game.

Arizona was heavily reliant on All-American Aari McDonald last season, but has a deeper, more well-rounded team this year.

The Wildcats also will get back All-Pac-12 forward Cate Reese.

The 6-foot-2 senior separated her shoulder against Washington State on Feb. 20 and missed the final three games of the season. Arizona lost two of those, including to Colorado in its first game of the Pac-12 Tournament.

“She’s a huge part of this team, obviously,” Arizona forward Lauren Ware said. “So just getting her back on the floor and in practice and stuff it helps us out a lot and it helps me out a lot as well just because I learn a lot from her and she makes me a better player.”

Like Barnes, UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque has orchestrated a quick turnaround.

The former Stanford player and assistant was the Mountain West Conference coach of the year in her first season and led the Lady Rebels (26-6) to a sweep of the Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

UNLV is one of the nation’s highest-scoring teams and has two players who average at least 15 points in Essence Booker and Desi-Rae Young, the Mountain West Conference player of the year.

“I think we are really talented,” La Rocque said. “I think they are very talented, too. But, it’s not a David and Goliath situation. I just don’t believe that. I think we have as good of a shot to really compete.”

STEPHEN F. AUSTIN VS NORTH CAROLINA

Courtney Banghart had the difficult task of replacing a legendary coach when Sylvia Hatchell retired after 33 years in 2019,

The former Princeton coach made a seamless transition, shaking off a 16-14 first season by leading North Carolina to the NCAA Tournament the past two years.

The Tar Heels (23-6) were picked to finish seventh in the ACC this season, but ended up tied for third and No. 17 in the final Associated Press poll. They earned a No. 5 seed despite losing to Virginia Tech in the opening round of the ACC Tournament.

North Carolina played with the same starters all season and has a versatile lineup, with three players averaging double figures in scoring.

“The versatility that we have in our roster is really helpful because as a coach and as a team I think we go in knowing … we don’t need anybody to be Superwoman,” Banghart said. “We need to be able to stay connected. And as the game comes, if we need you to facilitate, need you to score, need you to get stops, we’ve got to be able to adjust to the ebb and flow of the game.”

The Tar Heels are good at a both ends of the floor, averaging 73.7 points while holding opponents to 55.3, but will face a different kind of pressure against Stephen F. Austin.

The 12th-seeded Ladyjacks (26-4) love to run the full-court press and were second nationally in turnover margin, forcing 8.34 more turnovers per game than their opponents.

Stephen F. Austin shoots 51% on its 2-point shots and is led by Stephanie Visscher and Aiyanna Johnson, who both averaged at least 14 points per game.

“You’re seeing upsets already today and yesterday in men’s basketball, so I think the longer we’ve done it, the more you see it, the more these kids believe in opportunities and things that they can accomplish,” SFA coach Mark Kellogg said. “We’re just here to see if we can do something like that and advance in this tournament.”

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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