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The breakout star of March Madness? A coach 'representing moms' and pumping breast milk at halftime

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Around an hour after losing the biggest game of her coaching life, Adia Barnes could hear her daughter crying. Arizona's coach was sitting in a news conference room at the Alamodome, answering question after question about a devastating loss. Her Wildcats had fallen to Stanford on Sunday night, one point short of a national championship. Her voice was hoarse. Her emotions were drained. Her players were in tears.

But her daughter, Capri, had something else on her mind.

Capri is 6 months old – and was, as Barnes said, "ready to feed."

Over three magical weeks, Barnes engineered a stunning NCAA tournament run. She did it while "representing moms." While pumping breast milk at halftime. While waking up at 5 a.m. to spit-up and poop.

"I took a step back," Barnes said earlier this week. "I'm like, 'Wow, there's a lot of hats.' It's the former WNBA [player], it's the Black woman, it's the mom.

"But it's a privilege for me," she continued with a smile on her face. "You can be great at all these things. You can be someone representing, and doing it with class, and professionalism, and doing well at your job. You can be a mom, you don't have to stop coaching.

"You just have to have support, and a village."

Barnes leads tourney run while caring for baby

Barnes and her Wildcats arrived in San Antonio as outsiders. The 44-year-old had never even led a program to the NCAA tournament. But she and senior Aari McDonald exploded onto the national scene with a Sweet 16 upset of Texas A&M, then stunned UConn as a 13-point underdog in the Final Four.

All the while, Barnes was shouldering mom duties. "We didn't have a nanny," she said earlier this week. "We lost our nanny right before this trip. No one knows that. I don't talk about that publicly. It's been hard."

Especially hard because the NCAA didn't make children a priority. Children were allowed into the bubble with their working mothers, but counted against a team's 34-person travel party limit, meaning head coaches with young kids had to choose between a staffer and their baby. Breastfeeding coaches, like Barnes, didn't really have a choice. And there were reportedly no childcare stipends, no special accommodations in San Antonio.

Barnes said she'd "had people who've stepped up." Her son and husband – Salvo Coppa, an Arizona assistant coach – are part of her "village." Still, the workload was immense. Sleep, of course, could be hard to come by. On the morning of the Final Four showdown with UConn, she was up at 5 a.m.

And the added responsibilities of motherhood don't disappear when a game begins. Not even the national championship.

'Let's normalize working mothers'

ESPN's Holly Rowe reported Sunday night that Barnes was late coming out of the locker room for the second half. The reason? She was back in the locker room pumping breast milk for Capri.

Capri, meanwhile, was in the stands nibbling at her milk bottle, completely unaware that her mom was chasing a national title.

"They have to warm up the bottle with the heat packs that are here on the sideline," Rowe said. "She is doing it all."

"And for those of you who think this is too much information, I'm just gonna tell you this," Rowe continued. "Let's normalize working mothers, and all that they have to do to make it all happen."

Adia Barnes' journey

Barnes narrowly missed out on a title. But her journey to the brink has been a remarkable one. A nomadic playing career gave way to some broadcasting, then to a five-year stint as an assistant coach at Washington. She took the head job at Arizona, her alma mater, in 2016. In 2017-18, her team went 6-24.

But they won the WNIT the following season. In 2020, they were on track for the program's first NCAA tournament since 2005. Then COVID-19 came along.

And then, midway through the pandemic, Barnes' second child arrived. Capri was born in September.

It's these parts of the journey that Barnes reflected on Sunday night. "I had a baby right when the season started. Took like a week off," she said. "It says I took a month off, but I did not. I was on Zoom calls four days after having a C-section. It was hard.

"But my team loved on me. I missed a couple weeks. I got a little sick. They fought for me. I came back."

Among coaches, she became the undisputed breakout star of this year's tournament, a sharp basketball mind, and a personable, fierce Black woman willing to say what she feels. Her rousing, profane postgame speech on Friday went viral. Hell no she wasn't going to apologize for it.

McDonald, the program's star, will be off to the WNBA. But Barnes and Arizona are here to stay.

"I am so proud," Barnes said Sunday night of this year's run. "We weren't the best team in the tournament. No one thought we'd be here. We believed in each other. We didn't play a great game [tonight], but we battled. We played our hearts out. We came within one possession."

"So the bar is high," she later continued. "The standard is high once you come this far. Once you've had success like this, you reach for the sky."

As she was speaking she heard a noise. She glanced to her right.

"Now, this is gonna be where you wanna go," she continued, speaking of women's basketball's pinnacle. "This is going to be what we're trying to do."

Then another glance to her right.

And a few minutes later, while breaking down the title game's X's and O's, a loud wail brought a smile to her face.

"Sorry," she said. "That's my baby in the background."

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