After the first week of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, there are just three Australian men and women combined that have advanced to the Sweet 16. Leading the way were Kristy Wallace (Baylor), Georgia Stirton (Gonzaga) and for the men Mangok Mathiang (Louisville).
Sweet 16 Aussies: Mathiang, Stirton & Wallace
Entering the tournament with so much promise, the Aussie men found the going tough, with just two of the 8 teams in action managing to earn wins in their first games.
Mountain West regular season conference champions Boise State opened proceedings for the teams featuring Aussies in a 'First Four' game against Dayton who were playing on their home court. After leading for most of the game, the Broncos fell agonisingly short 55-56. They could not get the go-ahead basket when it was needed the most.
After what was an outstanding Mountain West Conference tournament in which he was named to the All-Tournament team, sophomore forward Nick Duncan went missing on the scoreboard, providing just 1 point with 5 rebounds in the tough loss. While he will be back to link up with Anthony Drmic who will be returning as a 5th year senior after red-shirting this season due to injury, it was senior guard Igor Hadziomerovic's last game as a Bronco. Despite starting again, the Victorian added just 3 points and 2 rebounds in only 12 minutes of action. It was not the way that the talented guard would have wanted to end his collegiate career and not the Broncos with a first round tournament exit.
Also playing his last game of college basketball was senior forward Dan Trist who was in action for the number 16 seeded Patriot League champions Lafayette against number 1 seed Villanova. The Australian’s reputation was done no harm thanks to a game-high performance from the All-Conference First Team forward. Trist was just 1 rebound shy of a double-double in contributing 18 points and 9 rebounds despite the Leopards being comprehensively beaten 52-93. The Leopards missed 14 of 18 three-point attempts and only added to their imposing challenge in trying to cause a major upset. Trist was outstanding, displaying his full array of post moves and was the most effective player in the paint ahead of embarking on a likely professional career.
With high expectations of being able to inflict a first-round upset over number 4 seed Georgetown, Eastern Washington pushed the Hoyas all the way but could not find a way to get past them and eventually fell short 74-84. All-Big Sky Conference First Team selection Venky Jois was at his best yet again on the big stage. The junior forward posted 19 points with 8 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 blocked shots, setting a new single season school record for blocked shots in the process (69). Felix Von Hofe provided value off the bench with 4 points and 2 rebounds, while senior guard Daniel Hill did not play in what would have been his last game as an Eagle.
The Eagle’s season ended with a 26-9 record, the best in school history, earning the Big Sky Conference regular-season co-championship and the league’s tournament title along the way. Eastern Washington will return their two best players in Jois and Harvey next year; when you add another Aussie in Michael Wearne with Von Hofe, Eastern Washington's prospects for next season look promising.
For undisputed America East Champions Albany, their dream run ended at the hands of #3 seed Oklahoma in their opening tournament game. While All-America East Second Team recipient Peter Hooley once again starred for the Great Danes in delivering 15 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists, senior forward Sam Rowley who was named to the All-America East First Team, provided 12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 1 blocked shot. Their performances combined were not enough to overcome a bigger and more athletic Sooners team who managed to repel every late-game fight-back to prevail 69-60. Sophomore forward Mike Rowley added 2 points and 6 rebounds in starting alongside his elder brother Sam in his last outing for the Great Danes to round out a stellar 4-year collegiate career.
In a massive first round shock, the number 3 seeded Baylor were sent packing by number 14 ranked Georgia State in a thrilling 56-57 loss! Junior forward Deng Deng did not see any action for the Bears as was expected. The Bear's allowed Georgia State to remain close and then fell victim to a game-winning triple at the buzzer to end their tournament much earlier than planned and bust many brackets in the process.
Louisiana State fell agonisingly short against North Carolina State in going down by just 1 point 65-66 on a game-winning shot. Sophomore center Darcy Malone saw only 2 minutes of action in the game for the Tigers who will return bigger and better next year with another Aussie star in the making, Ben Simmons, joining the team.
Enjoying success in their first game was Butler who accounted for Texas 56-48. The Bulldogs would then follow-up with a narrow 64-67 loss to Notre Dame 64-67 in the round of 32. Senior guard Jackson Aldridge did not see any action in either game, having found it tough to break into the rotation throughout the season as he now completes his last year of college basketball.
With Butler's loss, it leaves number 4 ranked Louisville as the only team with an Australian on their roster still dancing. The Cardinals survived an opening game scare against number 13 seed California Irvine to win 57-55. Sophomore forward Mangok Mathiang played 21 minutes for 3 rebounds and 2 steals.
Backing up in the round of 32, the Cardinals then raced to a 66-53 victory over Northern Iowa to advance to the Sweet 16. While once again not prominent on the score sheet in posting just 2 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal and 2 blocks in 23 minutes, Mathiang once again played his role to perfection. He provides high energy on the court, is a defensive presence, helping organise the Cardinals on court and be the glue that they need.
Louisville (26-8) now find themselves in the Sweet 16 for a program-record fourth straight year. Next awaits the red-hot number 8 seed North Carolina State who took care of number 1 seed Villanova. If the Cardinals win this one, then it could be another date with Michigan State in the Elite 8.
There were just three teams featuring Australian women making it to the big dance in 2015 and two of them made it through to the Sweet 16.
For Northeast Conference champions St. Francis Brooklyn, their fairytale run came to an end as they were overwhelmed 33-89 by number 1 seed Connecticut. Rounding out her collegiate career was senior Eilidh Simpson who was able to contribute 5 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist in 31 minutes. Freshman Alex Delaney also made some noise in adding 5 points and 1 rebound in 16 minutes off the bench.
While it was a rough loss for the Terriers, they arguably overachieved in qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in the first instance. They will be buoyed for next season by the emergence of Delaney who is poised to take on a larger role.
The West Coast Conference's Gonzaga managed to get their tournament off to a good start with a convincing 82-69 win against George Washington. Junior guard Georgia Stirton played an important role in the win, gathering 7 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists as a starter. For a chance t advance to the Sweet 16, they next faced number 3 seeded Oregon State.
In a tight contest, overtime was needed to determine a winner. It was in the extra period that saw the Bulldogs manage to open up a lead that they would maintain in upsetting Oregon State 76-64 to advance to the Sweet 16. Stirton was again solid, this time adding 7 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals in the big upset win. They next take on Tennessee for a chance to play in the Elite 8.
After a barnstorming season, Baylor continued their dominating ways to open their campaign with a 77-36 demolition of Northwestern State. In an outstanding post-season debut, freshman guard Kristy Wallace may have only scored 4 points, however she raked in a massive 11 rebounds with 6 assists, 3 steals and 1 blocked shot in a sensational all-round display.
Looking to maintain their imposing momentum, the Lady Bears then backed up with a 73-44 beating of Arkansas. Wallace this time stepped it up offensively, pouring in 13 points including 3/6 from long-range with 3 rebounds and 1s steal in 36 minutes. The dynamic play of the Queenslander is likely to play a critical role in determining just how far Baylor can go. The win marked the 7th year in a row that Baylor has reached the Sweet 16 where they will this time face Iowa.
And check out this great interview with Wallace as an added bonus!
Listen to Damian Arsenis on Melbourne's SEN 1116 sports radio program 'The Flag Flyers' from this week talking about the progress of the Aussie men and women in the NCAA Tournament.
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