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NCAA Women: Aussies most likely to star in March Madness
The college basketball season has reached the pointy end, and that means it's time for the big dance - the NCAA Tournament. With two Aussie women starring for sides with a real shot at making the Final Four and others featuring on some danger teams, there is plenty to watch for Aussie basketball fans over the next few weeks.
Kristy Wallace | Baylor
The Baylor front court may garner most of the headlines, but this Baylor team is going nowhere without Kristy Wallace running the show from the back court. Principally known as a defensive stopper in her first two seasons, the junior’s improved ability to find an open teammate has been on show all season as her assist numbers have exploded this year. Wallace’s first two seasons brought about 162 total assists; this year, she already has 166 before the NCAA Tournament even begins. Just for good measure, the Queenslander set a Big 12 conference tournament record with 15 assists in the Lady Bears’ semi-final win over Kansas State. However, Baylor slipped to a loss in the championship game against West Virginia, despite 17 points and 9 rebounds from Wallace.
Baylor are projected to be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament at this point. This means they would avoid hot favourites UConn until the Final Four. However, the Lady Bears held a #1 seed in 2016 and fell to Oregon State in the Elite Eight, so they will have to avoid doing the same this year before worrying about playing on the first weekend in April.
Alanna Smith | Stanford
Smith was Stanford’s star in their Pac-12 title win, contributing 18 of the team’s 48 points in their five point title game win over Oregon State. Now firmly entrenched as the Cardinal’s sixth player, the sophomore will be pivotal to the team’s success in the NCAA Tournament. A presence both on the perimeter and in the paint, Smith’s multiple weapons have made her a challenge for defenses up and down the Pac-12 this season. Her 8.2 points per game average is good enough for fourth in the squad, whilst 4.9 rebounds per game ranks her fourth on the Stanford roster. Most impressive though are Smith’s block numbers. Despite playing just 17 minutes per game, Smith has racked up the second-most blocks in the team with 49. For comparison, Erica McCall has played almost double the minutes to swat away 54 shots.
Stanford are projected to be a #2 seed in the most recent ESPN bracket, but will be handed a tougher draw than most. Their arena is being used for the Pac-12 gymnastics championship whilst the basketball tournament is on, meaning their hosting rights will be shifted to the next highest seed in their regional, most likely a #7 seed. Furthermore, they are tabbed to meet undefeated UConn in an Elite Eight match-up which would be played at Bridgeport, just up the road from UConn’s campus.
Jacinta Vandenberg & Morgan Yaeger | Oregon
Projected as an #8 seed by ESPN, the Ducks are the team that everyone will be hoping to avoid. The young Ducks team may have only finished 8-10 in conference play, but upset #11 Washington in the Pac-12 semi-finals for their third win over a nationally ranked team this season. Among the Aussies on the Oregon roster, Jacinta Vandenberg is the most experienced and also plays the most minutes.
Despite being overshadowed slightly by the outstanding freshman class that Oregon has brought in this year, Vandenberg has still averaged 15 minutes a game whilst acting in a mentor role to the future stars of a burgeoning Oregon program. Morgan Yaeger has not played quite as big a role as some of the other freshmen, but has still seen around 10 minutes per game and dropped in 2.2 points per contest. Unfortunately, the final member of Oregon’s Australian trio won’t be seeing the court. Megan Trinder injured her ACL for the second time early in the campaign and has been out for the majority of the season.
Madeleine Dennis | Dayton
Dennis has seen her playing time dip this season, but has still shown glimpses of her ability to impact a game. Tipped to be a #10 seed as things stand, Dayton rode roughshod over the entire Atlantic 10 Conference and will certainly be a danger team in the opening week of play. Dennis is averaging just 6 minutes of playing time per game, but did drop 12 points in 21 minutes in a regular season game against Atlantic 10 runner-up Duquesne. If the sophomore is required to step up for an extended period, Dennis has already shown that she can make a significant impact.
Rebekah Hatchard | Montana State
Early in the season, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Hatchard would spend the season pinned to the bench and seeing garbage time minutes at best. For a large part of the season, this was the case. Hatchard played more than ten minutes just three times in Montana State’s first 24 games. However, a 10 point effort in 20 minutes of action against Sacramento State in mid-February led to solid minutes in every game since then. This stretch of extended playing time culminated in 22 minutes of action in the Big Sky championship game win over fellow Australian Bianca Thacker and Idaho State, where the South Australian scored six points in the 62-56 win.
Montana State have floated between various low seed positions in the daily bracketology updates on ESPN throughout the last week, but have settled into a #14 seed at this point. If they do secure a #14 seed, they will most likely face a Washington side featuring ESPNW national player of the year Kelsey Plum.
Grace Collett | Gonzaga
Gonzaga secured their ticket to the big dance with a win over Saint Mary’s in the WCC championship game. However, playing time has been minimal for Collett this season with no court minutes for the freshman since December. With the Zags tipped to be an #11 seed, it is unlikely that Collett will see minutes unless their opening round game ceases to be a real contest early in the piece.