Although championship contenders Baylor lost Kristy Wallace to injury late in the season, there is still plenty to watch for in the NCAA Women's Tournament in 2018, with four other schools in the top 16 featuring Australian players.
#1 seed Mississippi State, Oregon, UCLA, and Stanford will all head into the tournament with lofty goals, whilst for players like Tiana Mangakahia at Syracuse and Stephanie Reid at Buffalo, it is a chance to upset the apple cart and show their elite skills on a national stage, with Syracuse also only two years removed from a trip to the Final Four themselves.
Aussies in the 2018 NCAA Tournament
#1 Baylor | Kristy Wallace* – Big 12 Champions #2 Oregon | Anneli Maley & Morgan Yaeger* – Pac-12 Champions #15 CSU Northridge | Jordan Smith – Big West Champions
At Large Bids
#1 Mississippi State | Chloe Bibby #3 UCLA | Chantel Horvat #4 Stanford | Alanna Smith #7 California | Sara Anastasieska* #8 Syracuse | Tiana Mangakahia #9 Dayton | Maddy Dennis #10 Minnesota | Jessie Edwards #11 Buffalo | Stephanie Reid, Katherine Ups, Liisa Ups, Courtney Wilkins
* ruled out through injury
Among the teams that secured automatic entry, the obvious name that jumps out is Kristy Wallace. The only player among the three teams to play significant minutes, Wallace suffered a season-ending ACL injury late in the regular season and will be watching on as her Baylor team attempts to reach their first Final Four since winning the National Championship in 2012. The Bears have reached the Elite Eight in each of the last three seasons, falling in the regional final on all three occasions. Anneli Maley has played 10 minutes per game for the Pac-12 champion Oregon side, but sophomore Morgan Yaeger has unfortunately missed the entire season with a back injury. Meanwhile, Jordan Smith has played just 14 minutes this season for CSU Northridge and will be hard-pressed to see minutes for the Matadors.
Three of the best performed Australians this season earned at-large bids as Alanna Smith’s Stanford side, Tiana Mangakahia’s Syracuse team, and Stephanie Reid’s Buffalo outfit all secured an invitation to the big dance. Buffalo in particular would have had plenty of sleepless nights since falling to Central Michigan in the MAC Championship game, especially after they were named as one of the eight teams in contention for the last four spots in the bracket.
Unfortunately, whilst there are 15 Australians listed above, only a maximum of 12 will step on court, with the aforementioned Wallace and Yaeger joined on the sidelines by California’s Sara Anastasieska, who like Yaeger has been forced out of playing this season by a back injury.
Aussies In the Bracket
#7 California (Anastasieska) v #10 Virginia #11 Buffalo (Reid, K. Ups, L. Ups, Wilkins) v #6 South Florida
#2 Baylor (Wallace) v Grambling State #4 Stanford (Smith) v #13 Gonzaga #9 Dayton (Dennis) v #8 Marquette
#2 Oregon (Maley, Yaeger) v #15 Seattle #10 Minnesota (Edwards) v #7 Green Bay #16 CSU Northridge (Smith) v #1 Notre Dame
Kansas City Regional
#1 Mississippi State (Bibby) v #16 Nicholls State #3 UCLA (Horvat) v #14 American #8 Syracuse (Mangakahia) v #9 Oklahoma State
Assessing the Draw
Regardless of the draw, Chloe Bibby and Mississippi State shape to be one of the favourites for the title. The Bulldogs lost just one game all season – the SEC Championship game, in which they fell to defending national champions South Carolina. The Bulldogs should easily handle Nicholls State in the first round, and if Tiana Mangakahia and Syracuse can get by Oklahoma State in the first round, the two teams will meet in the second round on Mississippi State’s home floor. #3 seed UCLA and Chantel Horvat lurk on the other side of the Kansas City regional, meaning there is a decent chance of seeing two Australians face off in the Elite Eight for a spot in Columbus.
We could also see an early Aussie vs Aussie match-up in the Spokane region, where an upset victory for Jessie Edwards and #10 seed Minnesota over Green Bay in their opener would most likely see the Golden Gophers take on Anneli Maley and #2 seed Oregon in the second round. On the other side of this section, Jordan Smith and #16 seed CSU Northridge will face an uphill battle against #1 seed Notre Dame in the opening round.
Despite losing their conference championship game, Buffalo and their Australian quartet snuck in as an #11 seed and will face AAC runners-up South Florida in the opening round of the Albany regional. With potential second round opponents Florida State hosting the first two rounds for this section of the draw, Buffalo will no doubt face a parochial crowd of travelling South Florida fans as the two sets of Bulls face off. #7 seed California will face #10 seed Virginia for the probable right to face South Carolina in the second round in this section, but unfortunately Sara Anastasieska will not be suiting up due to injury.
Finally, the Lexington regional is as much about the Aussie who isn’t playing as it is about those who will take to the court. Kristy Wallace’s absence through injury could yet prove to be a devastating blow, although backup Alexis Morris is playing inspired basketball recently and the Bears could yet ‘do it for Kristy’ by reaching the Final Four. They will face Grambling in the first round, with dangerous Tennessee and Oregon State squads lurking as potential Sweet 16 opponents. Meanwhile, Alanna Smith and Stanford have snagged a #4 seed, but even as hosts they face a tricky first two rounds before a potential meeting with #1 seed Louisville in the Sweet 16. WCC champions Gonzaga are probably a much better team than their #13 seed suggests, whilst only a late slide in SEC play deprived Missouri of earning a #4 seed themselves. Maddy Dennis has been out for #9 Dayton since December 31, with her side set to play #8 Marquette in the opening round. A win would most probably see them take on Louisville in the second round, but defeating a Cardinals side that perhaps even outplayed UConn in the second half of a regular season loss to the Huskies would be a mammoth task.
Mississippi State may be the only #1 seed featuring an Australian, but don’t count out Oregon and Baylor – even without Kristy Wallace – in the hunt for the national championship, whilst even UCLA and Stanford may be able to make some noise down the stretch if they play to their potential.