Landing at the Tucson International Airport before noon, a water arch sprayed the plane, public safety departments showed their respect and fans lined up ready to welcome them back after a long and impressive dance in the tournament. Hours before they arrived in town, fans were already gathering outside the Arizona football stadium for their big celebration.
15 percent of the stadium’s capacity was allowed in, masked and socially distanced, to honor the team. Dr. Robert Robbins, University of Arizona presidents, Athletic Director Dave Heeke and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero all spoke during the ceremony.
“We welcome a new era to Tucson, the U of A women’s basketball era of (Coach) Adia Barnes,” Romero said.
The championship run was a historic one for the program and school. Their run-up to the final game was one many thought would not happen—the team even being left out of the promo during the tournament. It was a year that shown a light on the inequalities in sports and athletics. The weight room controversy took over many headlines of the tournament after the women’s weight room was initially a table and a single rack of dumbbells before the NCAA admitted fault and brought in a new weight room.
“I didn’t want that to be like the message of the tournament because there was so much good basketball, but yeah it was blatantly a disparity,” Barnes said. “There’s a lot of inequalities and they were really brought to light in the tournament.”
Barnes, a breastfeeding mother who had to pump during halftime of the final game, said this weekend showed what women are capable of. In 2019, the women’s tournament brought in around 40 percent of the in-person fans the men’s tournament did. The 2021 tournament showed a vast improvement in viewership, with 66 percent more viewership in 2021 than in 2019 during the sweet 16 games, according to Sports Media Watch.
“I think there’s a lot that has to be changed, but what we saw the viewership and all of that, our game is growing,” said Barnes.
It’s a time that some fans, like Pam Reavis, have been waiting decades for. Reavis said she played women’s college basketball at NAU in the 60s, a far different time for women and women’s sports than 2021.
“It was back in the day when women’s sports got nothing and never got put in the paper,” said Reavis. “So, it’s just so fun for me to see now how the change, and how much better everything is for the women.”
Monday, the team was celebrated like celebrities. Fans waiting hours to see them, calling for autographs and pictures when the ceremony was over and a small band and cheer squad pumping up the crowd and media from all over southern Arizona. From a team that only won six games in a season a few years ago—to almost being national champions, the crowds are one Reavis has thought should be there all along.
“I think it’s great that Arizona is now a women’s basketball school as well,” said Sam Thomas, senior on the UArizona women’s team.
In the new limelight, the team is likely to bring in more, and better, recruits. Barnes said her program still has a lot of work to do and room to grow, getting better and stronger each year. She said the more people watch and support her team and program, the more funding, resources and recruits the team can get. She vowed her team will be back to the national championship tournament and eventually win the whole dance.
“We’re not a one and done there, we’re going to be there more. So, everybody better watch out. When they see Arizona, we are the team they don’t want to play. We will win. I don’t know when, but we will,” she said.