And then there were two. Australia’s presence in the 2015 NCAA Tournament has been extended with Mangok Mathiang’s Louisville and Kristy Wallace’s Baylor progressing through to the Elite 8. However it was devastation for Georgia Stirton and Gonzaga whose run came to an end in a nail-biting overtime loss to Tennessee.
Louisville booked their place in the Elite 8 by escaping with a 75-65 win over North Carolina State. Despite trailing by as many as 8 points in the second half, the Cardinals responded with a 16-2 run that put them ahead for good as they managed to withstand all challenges thrown at them.
Once again sophomore forward Mangok Mathiang played a key role in anchoring the defense, providing 3 points with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 3 telling blocked shots to help repel the Wolfpack. Two of his blocks were highlight reel worthy, demonstrating the importance of Mathiang’s high energy role on the team.
Louisville next renew their rivalry with number 7 seed Michigan State (Monday, Australian time) who advanced to the Sweet 16 by accounting for number 3 seed Oklahoma. With their Sweet 16 appearance, it was also as school-best fourth straight for the Cardinals who have made two of the past three Final Fours, winning the title in 2013. There is no doubting the desire to win, and nobody should write off their chances at making another Final Four appearance.
In the women’s tournament, Baylor exerted their dominance in another classy display as they dispatched number 3 seed Iowa 81-66. The Lady Bears have now reached the Elite 8 for 5th time in 6 years and their success was largely due to the shooting performance of All-Big 12 Freshman Team recipient Kristy Wallace.
The guard from Queensland played a near-perfect game, connecting on her first 7 shots on her way to an impressive 17 points – 12 of which came in the first half. Wallace’s shooting help generate a first half lead that grew to as many as 13 before Iowa managed to climb back into the game. The sharp-shooting Aussie ended up going 7/8 from the field including 2/2 from beyond the arc and 1/2 from the line, adding a further 2 rebounds and 1 steal in 28 minutes off the bench.
Baylor’s next challenge will be against the formidable number 1 seed Notre Dame (Monday, Australian time) who made it through to the Elite 8 after dismantling Stanford by 21 points. It will be a battle of two of the best teams in the nation who are both worthy contenders. Wallace will be expected to once again play the 6th man role off the bench to help spark her team to victory.
In a contest that could be described as ‘David versus Goliath’, Georgia Stirton and number 11 seed Gonzaga took on number 2 seed Tennessee looking for an upset. Pushing their more highly fancied opponents to the limit, it would take an extra period for Tennessee to hold on for a thrilling 73-69 overtime win to end the Bulldogs amazing run.
Riding a wave of hot-shooting in the first half coupled with Tennessee’s inability to score from the field, Gonzaga managed to stick with the Lady Vols early in a trend that would continue all game. It all came down to which team would edge ahead when it counted the most.
With the game tied at 63, junior guard Stirton missed a three-point attempt with 11 seconds left in regulation to put her team ahead. Gonzaga managed to block Tennessee’s shot at the buzzer to force an extra time. Neither team managed to gain the ascendancy in overtime, with the game result coming down to made free-throws with the Lady Vols managing to sneak ahead at the end without making a field goal.
While it was a heart-breaking end, it was a great season for the Zag’s who exceeded all expectations in progressing so far. For Stirton it was also a very good season as she firmly entrenched her position in the starting lineup at the point. However in her final game of the year, Stirton had a tough time in finding the basket, going 0/6 from the field to finish with 1 point but with 2 rebounds and 4 assists in playing a huge 40 minutes. There is tremendous upside about this Gonzaga team, and Stirton will be back next season to help try to take them a step further.