NCAA Women: Five Aussies dance into Sweet 16

The first two rounds of the women’s NCAA Tournament are in the books, and it has been a reasonably successful week for the Australians involved. Three have fallen by the wayside, but another three teams featuring a total of five Australians remain in the hunt for a championship, with Kristy Wallace, Alanna Smith, and the Oregon trio of Jacinta Vandenberg, Morgan Yaeger and Megan Trinder all still in the mix.

Kristy Wallace and Baylor are one of the title favourites and started their tournament campaign with a pair of blowout wins. As expected, the Lady Bears demolished #16 seed Texas Southern in the first round. Their 119-30 win obliterated all kinds of records, including the largest margin of victory in a tournament game and highest score by a team in a non-overtime tournament game. The lopsided nature of the game allowed coach Kim Mulkey to rest the starters for large parts, with Kristy Wallace’s 22 minutes actually the most minutes any one player played in the game. Wallace shot an impressive 4-5 from the field on her way to 12 points and also picked up 6 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds before taking an early mark.

Wallace was again impressive as Baylor routed California 86-46 in their second round contest. Although Baylor were strong favourites, few would have predicted a 40 point demolition. However, the Lady Bears held the Golden Bears to just 29% shooting and forced 24 turnovers to cruise to victory. Wallace notched 10 points on 4-9 shooting and dished out 9 assists before taking the last few minutes off as the hunt for a trophy took precedence over the chase for a double-double.

Baylor now take on Louisville in the Sweet 16. In the 2013 Sweet 16, Louisville famously defeated a Baylor side that had returned every starter from the previous year’s national championship winning team, including Brittney Griner. Baylor will have to be at their best if they are to ensure that they do not fall victim to the Cardinals once again, but on current form, Baylor will be heavy favourites to progress. The team is far more rested than Louisville and have plenty of reason to be up for the game considering the recent history between the two sides.

Alanna Smith and Stanford also progressed through to Sweet 16, but didn’t have it all their own way. Denied their hosting rights by the Pac-12 gymnastics championship, Stanford traveled to Manhattan, Kansas to face New Mexico State in the first round. Stanford are the only #1 seed to have ever lost to a #16 seed, and with a quarter to play looked as if they might become the first #2 seed to lose to a #15 seed as they trailed 49-48 through three periods. Alanna Smith was Stanford’s top performer with 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 blocks, with her fourth quarter performance a joy to behold. The sophomore scored 9 points in the final term, which was exactly the margin that Stanford won the fourth quarter by to take out a 72-64 win.

Things came a little easier for the Cardinal against home side Kansas State. Keen to silence the crowd that had seen a home game simply fall into their lap, Stanford obliterated the Wildcats in the first half to take a 39-21 lead into halftime. Smith was again on fire, scoring another 19 points and hauling in 7 rebounds as Stanford rolled home to a 69-48 win and ensuring that playing on the road would simply be a minor obstacle rather than an excuse for failure.

Stanford take on Texas in the Sweet 16 in a rematch of a game that was played at Stanford early in the season. Stanford won that game 71-59, but things have changed a lot since then. Texas’ star Joyner Holmes played just 17 minutes in that game, and Alanna Smith played only 9 minutes. Stanford will no doubt still be favoured for this game given the two rosters and previous history, as well as the fact that Texas are coming off an incredibly tight game against #6 seed North Carolina State. This game has the potential to be one of the best games of the Sweet 16, with the winner to face either #1 seed Notre Dame, or Nancy Lieberman Award finalist Kelsey Mitchell and #5 seeded Ohio State.

Oregon came into the tournament regarded as one of the teams that was seeded in a criminally low position by the committee. However, that mattered little to the Ducks - or perhaps Ducklings given their youth - who have busted everyone’s brackets in reaching the Sweet 16 as a #10 seed, one of two double-digit seeds to reach this point of the tournament.

Facing #7 seed Temple in the opening round, the two sides played out one of the best games of the first weekend. Storming home from 58-52 down in the final quarter, freshman Ruthy Hebard hit a close range shot with 5.5 seconds to play before blocking Temple’s attempted buzzer-beater to give Oregon a 71-70 win. Unfortunately from an Australian perspective, Morgan Yaeger and Jacinta Vandenberg were restricted to towel-waving duties, with both finishing the game with DNP next to their names.

Vandenberg did manage to see some playing time in the Ducks’ second round game against #2 seed Duke. Having already completed one upset, Oregon were playing with house money in this one, and it showed. The Ducks jumped out to a 19-14 lead after the first quarter and maintained the 5 point margin at halftime, going in up 31-26. Seemingly unaffected by the occasion, Oregon shot 44.8% on their way to a 74-65 win. Jacinta Vandenberg played 16 minutes and finished with an assist and a steal, but once again Morgan Yaeger was unable to find her way onto the court as the three starting guards played all bar 8 minutes of the contest.

Having already knocked off a #2 seed, Oregon were rewarded with a trip to Bridgeport to face #3 seed Maryland. Seen as a team that is far better than their resume suggests, Maryland will provide at least as stern a test as Duke did for the Ducks. Their only two losses this season have been to Connecticut and Ohio State, and defeated Big 12 champions West Virginia 83-56 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Although this game will be an extremely tough challenge, Oregon will be able to play with the comfort of knowing that the pressure is all on their opponents.

Montana State took an unexpected early lead into their first round game against #3 seed Washington, but once ESPNW National Player of the Year Kelsey Plum took over, the game became Washington’s for the taking and the home side promptly ran away with the game to finish 91-63 winners. Australian Rebekah Hatchard played 14 minutes in the loss, pulling down a solitary rebound as the Bobcats’ first tournament appearance since 1993 was a short-lived one.

Dayton allowed Tennessee to jump out to a 20-9 lead in their first round contest, but turned things around by winning the second quarter by the same scoreline to leave the game poised at 29-29 at halftime. Unfortunately, Dayton’s slow start to the first half was repeated in the second half, and Tennessee took full advantage. The #5 seeded Lady Vols established a 9 point lead before holding Dayton off for the entire fourth quarter to run out 66-57 winners. Australian Maddy Dennis was given minimal playing time, being offered just a minute on the court. Despite this, the Western Australian was able to collect two rebounds and an assist in her short stint on court.

Gonzaga may have history as an #11 seed on their side, with success at this point in previous years, but it wasn’t to be against Oklahoma in the first round. Oklahoma exploded on offence in the first quarter to jump out to a 29-16 lead as Gonzaga struggled to get into the game. The Zags improved as the game progressed, but were never quite able to overcome the first quarter deficit, going down 75-62. Australian freshman Grace Collett unfortunately did not see any playing time as Gonzaga remained in with a shot for much of the fourth quarter and the starters remained in the game.