Australia had a good chance of qualifying two Australians to the Final Four of the 2015 edition of the NCAA Tournament. Alas, the run of Mango Mathiang's Louisville and Kristy Wallace's Baylor came to an end.
In renewing their rivalry with Michigan state in the Elite 8, Louisville were looking to advance to the Final Four and a return to the men's national championship game for the first time since they won it in 2013.
The opening half was quality basketball, with both teams going at each other as one would expect, the Cardinals managed to edge ahead to take a narrow 40-32 lead at the half time break. In the second half, each team threw everything at each other, with Michigan State pulling away late in the game. Louisville, as they have done all season, never said die and fought back again.
Mangok Mathiang was almost the hero for Louisville. Trailing by 1 with seemingly the last possession of regulation, the 6'10 sophomore pulled down an offensive rebound and was fouled as his put-back rimmed out with 4.9 seconds left on the clock. Adding to the suspense, Mathiang's first shot from the charity stripe bounced high off the rim and amazingly fell in to tie the game up. His second free throw once again bounced high off the rim to miss left, with the Spartans missing a prayer from mid-court at the buzzer as the game went into an extra period.
Bonus basketball. Mathiang played his percentages. He was just under 50 percent at the line this season. Made 1 of 2. OT here in Cuse.
— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) March 29, 2015
In overtime, it was Michigan State who started stronger, with the Cardinals increasingly found it tough to score in the paint against a swarming Spartan defense. Michigan State slowly edged ahead on the back of some great defensive stops to eventually win the enthralling contest 76-70 and deny the Cardinals their 3rd Final Four in four years and 11th overall.
Mathiang finished the game with 4 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 blocked shots in 37 minutes, bettering his season free throw percentage of 48% by knocking in 2/4 from the line. Unfortunately he missed the one that in all likelihood may have won them the game. While Louisville's unlikely run to the Final Four came to a heart-breaking end, it highlighted the emergence of Mathiang as a regular starter on one of the best teams in the NCAA. He will need to work on his offensive game ahead of next season if he is to take the next step in elevating his game further.
In the women's tournament, the number 2 seed Baylor Lady Bears went toe to toe with number 1 seed Notre Dame in a rematch of the 2012 championship final. Baylor opened strongly, connecting on 12 of its first 18 shots gain an early 9 point advantage. However as all good teams do, the Fighting Irish fought back to take steal the lead 39-37 at the main break. From thereon in, it became a battle of attrition with neither team able to break away from reach other.
After being red-hot in their Sweet 16 win, Kristi Wallace's stroke cooled down, with the freshman Australian guard instead setting up others to score. Notre Dame managed to maintain a small lead for most of the second half, yet when Wallace connected on her only triple for the game with 1:57 remaining she closed the margin to 4. Despite the Lady Bears looking poised to strike, that would be as close as they would get, with Notre Dame holding on to win 77-68.
All-Big 12 Freshman team member Wallace posted 6 points with 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal to round out an outstanding first year in college basketball. With the experience of a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, Wallace will be poised for an even better 2015/16 season and help erase the disappointment of going so close this time around.