NCAA Women: Ten Aussies dance into Sweet 16

It has been a highly successful opening two rounds of the women’s NCAA Tournament for the Australians, with six teams featuring ten Aussies moving onto the Sweet 16. Seven of the eleven teams reached the round of 32, with only the fact that Jessie Edwards and Minnesota faced an Oregon side featuring Anneli Maley and Morgan Yaeger preventing all seven from advancing to the next round.

Buffalo, led by Stephanie Reid and featuring a total of four Aussies, have been one half of a MAC surprise packet alongside conference champions Central Michigan, with both teams delivering a pair of upsets to see two #11 seeds reach the Sweet 16.

The Bulls opened up against #6 seed South Florida, and whilst to the casual observer it may have appeared that their opponents were locks for this game, those who have kept a keen eye on the MAC knew what Buffalo could bring to the table. However, you wouldn’t have found many who picked Aussie junior Courtney Wilkins to be one of the catalysts for a 102-79 win. Whilst star guard Cierra Dillard dropped 36 and Reid tallied 19 points and 8 assists, Wilkins provided a bonus 23 points off the bench, knocking down 5 of 8 from three-point range in the process. Katherine Ups also added 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists as South Florida simply had no answer to a Buffalo side that shot 53% from the field and 52% from beyond the arc.

However, even the most ardent Bulls fan would have recognised that things looked tougher on paper against hosts and #3 seed Florida State. Evidently the Bulls didn’t get the memo, as they again shot the lights out, hitting at 48% and making 27 of 30 free throws as all five starters finished in double figures. That included Reid, who chalked up another 18 points on 6 of 12 from the field and a perfect 6 of 6 from the stripe, and Katherine Ups, who chipped in with 11 points. With Florida State shooting a dismal 3 of 25 from beyond the arc, Buffalo were able to slowly extend their margin, eventually making a mockery of their seeding with an 86-65 demolition to set up a date with defending national champions South Carolina.

If Buffalo’s wins were a surprise, Alanna Smith and Stanford provided a timely reminder of why March is and always has been considered their time. After an impressive postseason in 2017, Smith dished up a scintillating 20 point performance in the Cardinal’s 82-68 victory over Gonzaga in the opening round, knocking down 8 of 13 from the field and dishing out 4 blocks alongside 6 rebounds as Stanford handled a dangerous Zags side that refused to go away for a large part of the game.

Missouri were set to be a testing opponent for Stanford in the second round, but fell in the first round to Florida Gulf Coast, who became the Cardinal’s second round opponents. The Eagles set the NCAA Division I single-season record for three-point attempts during the game, but Stanford’s perimeter defence was in lockdown mode, regularly forcing contested shots. Florida Gulf Coast shot 17 of 47 from beyond the arc, and Stanford outrebounded their opponents 52-18 in a 90-70 victory, with Smith at the heart of the win. The junior picked up her 7th double-double of the season, scoring 28 points and collecting 12 rebounds, connecting on 4 of 7 from beyond the arc in the process, beating Florida Gulf Coast at their own game.

Fellow Pac-12 side UCLA reached the Sweet 16 with two reasonably comfortable victories, but Chantel Horvat saw only limited court time in both games. The Bruins came out firing against American in their opening round contest, establishing a 27-12 first quarter lead on the way to a 71-60 win, but with coach Cori Close utilizing a seven-player rotation for the majority of the contest, Horvat’s playing time was limited to just two minutes on court. It was the same story in UCLA’s 86-64 demolition of Creighton, as the Bruins came out strongly in the early stages, putting together a 49-32 first half before cruising to victory. However, once again Horvat’s playing time was limited to just two minutes, with the team’s lesser-used seniors also being offered the chance to play one last time on their home floor at Pauley Pavilion.

#2 seed Oregon faced #10 seed Minnesota in an Aussie v Aussie matchup as Anneli Maley and Morgan Yaeger took on Jessie Edwards. Oregon came in on the back of an 88-45 first round win over #15 seed Seattle in which Maley played 13 minutes and picked up 2 rebounds, whilst Edwards was one of Minnesota’s stars in their 89-77 opening round win over #7 seed Green Bay. The Western Australian played 30 minutes off the bench after the Gophers’ starting centre found herself in foul trouble, narrowly missing a double-double with a 12 point, 9 rebound performance. Edwards added 6 points and 2 rebounds for Minnesota against Oregon, but the Ducks stormed to a 101-73 win, with Maley knocking down 3 of 4 from the field to contribute 11 points in 7 minutes.

Chloe Bibby and #1 Mississippi State had a slight scare against Oklahoma State, but righted the ship in the second round to secure a Sweet 16 berth in their quest to go one better than last season’s national runner-up position. The Bulldogs came in on the back of a routine 95-50 victory over #16 seed Nicholls State, a game in which Bibby played 6 minutes, contributing 2 points and 4 rebounds in 6 minutes of action. Oklahoma State demolished Syracuse in the second half of their first round matchup, and looked to keep the momentum going, taking a 20-16 lead and trailing by one at halftime. But with foul trouble becoming a problem for the Cowgirls, 6’7 centre Teaira McCowan was able to dominate in the paint for Mississippi State, finishing with 21 points and 18 rebounds as the Bulldogs completed a 71-56 win. Bibby was afforded just two minutes of playing time in this game, leaving little time to make any tangible impact.

#2 seed Baylor may be without Kristy Wallace, but the Bears have rolled in their first two games. After dispatching the hapless #15 seed Grambling State 96-46 in the opening round, Baylor survived a first-half challenge from #7 seed Michigan on their way to an 80-58 victory.

Sweet 16 Matchups

Saturday March 24

10:00am - #2 Baylor (Kristy Wallace) v #6 Oregon State 10:00am - #1 Mississippi State (Chloe Bibby) v #4 North Carolina State 12:00pm - #4 Stanford (Alanna Smith) v #1 Louisville 12:00pm - #3 UCLA (Chantel Horvat) v #2 Texas

Sunday March 25

2:30am - #11 Buffalo (Stephanie Reid, Katherine Ups, Liisa Ups, Courtney Wilkins) v # 2 South Carolina 9:00am - #2 Oregon (Anneli Maley, Morgan Yaeger) v #11 Central Michigan

(All times AEDT. All matches available to watch LIVE on WatchESPN and the ESPN app)

1st Round Exits

Valiant CSUN fall to Notre Dame

Jordan Smith and CSU Northridge were always expected to have trouble in their #16 v #1 matchup against Notre Dame, but the Matadors fought to the very end in a spirited performance, going down 99-81.

The underdogs hung with Notre Dame in the opening stages, with the game tied 14-14 late in the first quarter before a late run from Notre Dame opened up a 23-16 advantage. The Fighting Irish put the foot down in the second quarter, taking a 55-32 lead into halftime despite losing starting forward Kathryn Westbeld to injury. Although the Matadors were able to chip into the margin late, the game was well and truly secure by the end of the third quarter, with the bench playing much of the final term for Notre Dame. Jordan Smith saw 3 minutes of court time in her final college game, but was not able to register a basket, shooting 0 of 2.

Third quarter woes kill Syracuse hopes

What appeared to be one of the toughest games in the bracket to pick looked to be staying true to that form in the opening stages, but #8 seed Oklahoma State delivered an inspired third quarter to end Syracuse’s season, and with it Tiana Mangakahia’s record-breaking campaign, delivering the #9 seed Orange an 84-57 defeat.

The Orange kept pace with the Cowgirls in the first quarter, but with senior centre Kaylee Jensen dominating in the paint against the younger Syracuse forwards, Oklahoma State pulled away to a 40-32 halftime lead before putting the hammer down with a 27-9 third quarter that essentially ended the game as a contest as Jaden Hobbs, who averaged four points per game coming in, buried 8 of 9 threes for the Cowgirls. Mangakahia rounded out her season with an 8 point, 8 rebound, 7 assist performance for a Syracuse side that may have lost in the first round this year, but will return all five starters in 2018-19.

Star’s absence too big a hurdle for Cal

All Pac-12 forward Kristine Anigwe was a late scratching for Cal prior to their #7 v #10 match against Virginia, an out that probably would have dropped the Golden Bears to an #8 seed if the call was made prior to the bracket being revealed. Forwards Penina Davidson and CJ West did well to fill some of the void left by Anigwe’s absence, but after taking a 31-30 lead into halftime, Cal were held to just six third-quarter points as Virginia clamped down on defence. That proved to be the difference in the game, as a lights-out final quarter from both teams that delivered a combined 51 points saw the scoring split evenly as Virginia secured a 68-62 victory.

The loss also brought the curtain down on a frustrating season for Australian sophomore Sara Anastasieska, who spent the last three months of the campaign out with a back injury, playing just ten games in her first season of eligibility for Cal.

Dayton’s late-season slide ends in first round loss

Dayton fell to a surprising loss to George Washington in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and whilst a loss to #8 seed Marquette wasn’t nearly as shocking, it still represented a case of what might have been for the Flyers, who took three of their seven season losses in the final four games of their campaign.

Marquette guard Natisha Hiedeman went off for 18 first quarter points as part of a 32 point outing, putting Dayton behind the eight-ball early on, and Marquette kept rolling. By halftime the Golden Eagles had established a 45-31 lead, and the second half saw them merely need to keep pace with Dayton, which they had no troubles doing on their way to an 84-65 win. Australian junior Maddy Dennis made a brief appearance, tallying 2 minutes of playing time in the final game of her junior campaign.