Wildcats closing in on tourney title on senior guard's home tundra
Alaska. The word alone evokes thoughts of blizzards, snowdrifts, glaciers, snow and more snow.
Arizona. Conversely, our state conjures images of cacti, cow skulls, a big hole in the ground, heat and more heat.
Any link between the two states is highly unlikely - but then again, one link, senior guard Natalie Jones of the Arizona women's basketball team, isn't all that typical herself.
"I'm not what you call a 'real Alaskan,'" said the 5-foot-10 native of Anchorage. "I've never been camping - I went hiking for the first time like three years ago. I fished when I was younger, but other than that, I don't hunt. I've never held a gun to shoot anything."
Jones and her teammates made the 2,500-plus-mile trek over the weekend to her hometown, where they will take on Furman tonight at 8 in Sullivan Arena in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout.
"I think it's going to be really special (for Jones)," said Arizona head coach Joan Bonvicini. "I think first of all, there are a number of good players from Alaska, but there's not a lot. To go back in front of her family and friends is going to be really special."
The Anchorage-to-Tucson connection is one the Wildcats are glad for.
Never mind the 50-degree temperature change, disregard the nearly 64 hours of nonstop driving it would take to complete the trip between the two cities and forget about the wide variation in hours of daylight each city receives. (Anchorage sees nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer, but less than eight in the winter.)
"My fondest memory of playing back there was probably the group of girls I played with," said Jones, the 2002 USA Today Alaska Player of the Year. "Whenever you went into town, people would know you. You're kind of like a superstar there."
When the ball tips tonight, it's safe to say the majority of those sitting in Arizona's allotted guest seats will have some connection to Jones.
Her guest list includes Jones' former coach at East Anchorage High School, Dorena Bingham, two former teammates, as well as numerous friends and family members.
To give her players a chance to play in front of their family and friends, Bonvicini said she tries the best she can to schedule games in her players' hometowns whenever possible.
Notable other trips this season include trips to Maryland (for sophomore guard Ashley Whisonant) and Fresno, Calif., which was made for the late Shawntinice Polk.
"I'm glad (the trip) was my senior year because I get to live it up," Jones says. "I mean, it's a great chance for people to see how much I've grown since high school and how much I've matured.
"I mean, I'm the same old Natalie, you know, immature at times," she said. "But (it's) just for them to see how much my game has matured."
During the semester, Jones said she doesn't often get the chance to return home to see her family, so she's relishing this opportunity.
"I usually go back during Christmas and during the summer, but Thanksgiving ... is going to be real big, because I get to spend a lot of time with my family."
"It's amazing. When we travel, there's always someone from Alaska following her and a lot of her family and friends and coaches, they come out and support her and they travel everywhere," Bonvicini said.
To say Anchorage and Tucson are different would be a slight understatement - when the team left sunny Tucson on Saturday, the temperatures were climbing into the upper 70s.
When they landed in Anchorage, temperatures were in the 20s with a 40 percent chance of snow.
Still, the unique destination provides team members a unique opportunity to do things they wouldn't normally be able to do.
"I guess we're going dog sledding. This is what I hear," said sophomore guard Jessica Arnold, a former standout at Tucson's Palo Verde High School.
"I've never been dog sledding in my life," Jones said.
Even if they don't make it to the sleds, Jones said she's thankful for the chance her coach has given her.
"It's very exciting," she said. "I get a chance play in front of my home fans, in front of my family, and some of the people that were able to see me play in high school but weren't able to come out and watch me play in my four years in college. It's going to be a great atmosphere."