Four teams have punched their tickets into the Elite Eight of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. And for the first time this March, a No. 1 seed was eliminated as NC State heads home. While chalk held in the River Walk Regional to set up a showdown between No. 1 seed UConn and second-seeded Baylor, upsets ruled Mercado, where fourth-seeded Indiana and 3-seed Arizona will both be making their first appearance in the Elite Eight. With four more games on tap for Sunday, which teams will join the Huskies, Lady Bears, Hoosiers and Wildcats? Is Oregon ripe for an upset over No. 2 seed Louisville? What’s next for Iowa and Caitlin Clark, who were ousted by the Huskies and Christyn Williams’ career day? And we get a jump on what to expect in the Baylor-UConn regional final on Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
One game went to overtime. Two ended in upsets. Which team impressed you the most on Saturday?
Voepel: It’s a boring answer, but I have to say UConn. Juniors Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa really looked and played like upperclassmen and leaders. Aaliyah Edwards was such a dominant presence inside for the Huskies, going 9 of 11 from the field for 18 points. And fellow freshman Paige Bueckers really played a very controlled game, understanding how well everyone around her was also playing. She didn’t try to do too much or force things, she showed a lot of point guard maturity, which has been the case all during her first college season.
Arizona also stood out. The Wildcats are known for their defense, and finished what Troy and Iowa State came close to, but couldn’t quite do.
But along with the defense that held Texas A&M to 59 points, the Wildcats did a decent job offensively, too. They took control with a 24-14 third quarter. Aari McDonald was brilliant with 31 points, but everyone around her did their part as well.
Creme: Even with a 1-2 record on Saturday, the Big Ten remained impressive. Michigan took Baylor, which has been one of the most dominant teams in the NCAA tournament, to overtime. The Wolverines trailed by 12 late in the second quarter but didn’t wilt. Baylor holds teams to 31.7 percent shooting; Michigan made 46 percent. The Wolverines continued to find open looks against a typically locked-down defense. One more stop or two on defense and the Wolverines might have pulled the stunner.
Indiana entered the Sweet 16 with little fanfare. Now the Hoosiers are the first team to take out a No. 1 seed. Their 73-70 win over NC State exemplified everything they have been all season — balanced, disciplined, smart, gritty. All five starters scored in double figures. They only turned over the ball nine times (to NC State’s 17). Indiana collected more rebounds and had more points in the paint than a taller Wolfpack team.
In control of the game for nearly the entire second half with a lead as big as 13 in the fourth quarter, Indiana did let NC State get back into the game late. The lead shrunk to two, but senior starters Nicole Hillary-Cardano and Ali Patberg made the necessary free throws in the final 21 seconds to put Indiana into the program’s first Elite Eight.
Back in November, Iowa was nowhere to be seen in preseason rankings. With the bulk of the roster, including Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano, expected back, where will Iowa start out 2021-22?
Voepel: The Hawkeyes can definitely build from this; they hung in for a lot of Saturday’s game against UConn, but the Huskies had too many weapons offensively and too much defense.
Iowa native Caitlin Clark took her time making her college decision. She could have gone many places, but the chance to do something big for a program just about two hours from her hometown mattered to her.
“The reason I came to Iowa is because I wanted to do something special,” Clark said. “I think more and more people are starting to kind of go that route. I think that’s important, especially this being my home state, this is where I wanted to go. I know I’m in the right place. This season was truly special.
“I think for this team, it’s only up from here. So I know a lot of little girls dream about going to all those bluebloods, but I think playing for your home state is really something special. … There was a true belief that we were going to make the Final Four someday. We didn’t say we were going to do it in my first year here.”
Creme: The beauty of watching a season evolve and take on a life of its own is a team like Iowa. Most people felt like Clark would be an impact freshman, but Iowa wasn’t ranked in the preseason largely because the departures of Kathleen Doyle and Makenzie Meyer seemed like too big of a hole to fill. Clark changed that. She gave the game a new star and the Hawkeyes an immediate foundation.
With so much of the roster returning and Clark poised to be an All-American mainstay, there’s little chance that the Hawkeyes get left off any preseason rankings next season. In fact, they are primed to be a top-four seed next year and will start there in our first offseason Bracketology.
Our panel was split on which team would win Sunday’s Oregon-Louisville game (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). What’s the key to the matchup?
Creme: I think many of us picked Oregon based on the slow starts by Louisville so far in the NCAA tournament. Eventually that has to catch up to the Cardinals, right? Louisville was down 15-12 to Marist and 25-10 to Northwestern after the first quarter. Oregon was able to build a small early lead against Georgia in their second-round matchup, but held South Dakota to eight first-quarter points in the opening round.
So the opening 10 minutes is the key to this matchup. There’s no doubt Louisville coach Jeff Walz has addressed the poor early play with his team. Now we will see if the message resonates. Oregon might be too good for the Cardinals to climb out of another big hole.
Two transfers will also be the key for the Ducks. Sedona Prince, a 6-foot-7 transfer who came from Texas, seems to have hit her stride in the tournament and handled the size of Georgia well with 22 points. Louisville offers a similar challenge with 6-5 Elizabeth Dixon and 6-3 Olivia Cochran.
Taylor Mikesell, who came to Eugene from Maryland, will also play a huge role. A big-time shooter, Mikesell has had to handle the ball much more late in the season with freshman point guard Te-Hina Paopao out with an injured foot. Against the Lady Bulldogs, she scored 11 points, knocked down 2 of 4 3-point attempts and had just three turnovers in 34 minutes.
Louisville All-American Dana Evans hasn’t played well in this postseason, but she is still a skilled defender. If Mikesell can provide similar play against Evans, Oregon’s chances to advance look even better.
No. 6 seed Michigan took Baylor to overtime. What did the Lady Bears learn from that close call that will help them heading into the Elite Eight against UConn, a game that has been eagerly anticipated since Selection Monday?
Creme: I was surprised that despite needing the extra period, it never felt like the Lady Bears weren’t playing well. They shot 50 percent from the field. Aside from one free throw, NaLyssa Smith didn’t miss over her 44 minutes of action. Baylor got more great production from Moon Ursin and DiJonai Carrington. That’s a tribute to just how well Michigan performed.
The Wolverines were well prepared and executed their game plan to near perfection. Leigha Brown (23 points, 7 rebounds) — who was forced to sit out for more than 30 days due to COVID-19 protocols this season — seemed to be peaking, and it’s a shame she doesn’t have any more games to play this season. The Wolverines deserve far more credit than Baylor deserves to be criticized.
But as the Lady Bears head into the showdown with UConn, it’s important to note that Baylor was in the top-five nationally in every rebounding category and led the country in rebound margin. The dominance wasn’t there against Michigan. While the Lady Bears outrebounded the Wolverines, it was just 37-32. More importantly, Baylor only had 15 second-chance points. That is usually a staple of the Lady Bears’ offense. They didn’t have that to rely upon and it kept Michigan close.
Meanwhile, UConn completely dominated the glass against Iowa, 42-27, allowing only seven offensive rebounds by the Hawkeyes. Every game is different and takes on its own personality, but the Huskies have the personnel, especially with Edwards playing a more substantial role (she had her third straight 18-point game against Iowa), to do even more than Michigan did on the boards, potentially taking away what would have been perceived as a big Baylor advantage.
When the Lady Bears beat UConn 74-58 a year ago, they dominated the rebounding numbers, 44-26. If Baylor wants to become just the fourth team to beat the Huskies three straight times over the last 20 years (North Carolina, Notre Dame and Tennessee are the others), regaining that swagger on the glass might be a key.
Voepel: Like Charlie said, there really wasn’t much Baylor did wrong – the Michigan-Baylor game was the best played by both teams on Saturday. It was really entertaining, and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey gave her Michigan counterpart Kim Barnes Arico a lot of kudos for how tough and well the Wolverines played pushing Baylor to the overtime buzzer.
Baylor and UConn are so elite in so many categories, including field goal percentage defense and rebounding. Both these teams play high-level defense, which is why second-chance opportunities could be big because there won’t be many of them.