NCAA Women: Yaeger and Oregon dance into Final Four
Australians remain alive in all three postseason tournaments, with Morgan Yaeger and Oregon making their way into the Final Four for the first time in program history to provide the highlight of the week. Meanwhile, Jess Sancataldo’s Northwestern outfit and Ella Hellessey’s TCU side have reached the WNIT semi-finals, whilst Nicola Mathews and Appalachian State will play in the WBI championship game.
It was by no means a memorable performance from Alanna Smith or #2 seed Stanford as a whole in their Sweet Sixteen victory over Missouri State, but the Cardinal got the job done with a 55-46 victory over the #11 seed Lady Bears. Smith finished as one of just two Stanford players in double figures as the hot favourites shot a dismal 3 of 29 from three-point range and just 25% from the field, leading to their inability to put away Missouri State until the final couple of minutes. Despite foul trouble, Smith tallied 13 points and 6 rebounds, with 7 of her points coming on 70% free throw shooting to keep her college career alive for at least one more game against #1 seed Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
Morgan Yaeger played a minor role in #2 seed Oregon’s win over a pesky #6 seed South Dakota State side that had already upset Tiana Mangakahia and Syracuse in the second round. The redshirt sophomore played 7 minutes off the bench, picking up a single rebound in the Ducks’ 63-53 victory as the Jackrabbits forced Oregon coach Kelly Graves into keeping his starters on the court perhaps a bit longer than he may have originally planned.
Injured sophomore Chloe Bibby watched on as Mississippi State set up an Elite Eight battle with Yaeger and Oregon as the #1 seed Bulldogs accounted for #5 seed Arizona State 76-53. Arizona State remained in contention for much of the game, but a 22-8 final term saw Mississippi State pull away for a comfortable victory to move into the quarter-finals.
Meanwhile, the season came to an end for Jasmine Simmons and Chantel Horvat in the Sweet Sixteen, with neither taking the court in their teams’ losses. #4 seed Oregon State fell to a 61-44 loss to #1 seed Louisville, whilst the injured Horvat was forced to watch on as #6 seed UCLA took a slender lead in the third quarter before falling to a 69-61 loss to #2 seed UConn.
Australia was guaranteed to have at least one player in the Final Four as Morgan Yaeger’s Oregon side faced Chloe Bibby’s Mississippi State outfit in the Portland regional final. In a game in which Mississippi State were the notional home team as the #1 seed, the location of the game put paid to that idea as a heavily pro-Ducks crowd filled the arena. A thrilling game saw three Oregon starters play 40 minutes, leaving no playing time for Yaeger, and with Bibby out injured, there was no Australian presence on court on this particular occasion as the Ducks outlasted the Bulldogs down the stretch to secure an 88-84 victory and a spot in the program’s first Final Four.
Alanna Smith and Stanford faced a similar issue to Mississippi State in that their Elite Eight game against Notre Dame in the Chicago regional took place just 90 miles from the Fighting Irish’s campus, creating a decidedly hostile atmosphere for the Cardinal. However, Stanford came out firing in the first half and took a 33-26 lead into the locker room at halftime, with Smith among a number of Stanford players impressing. But the second half saw the class of the defending national champions shine through as Notre Dame put together a 26-13 third quarter before powering home to run out 84-68 winners. Smith’s stellar college career came to an end with the loss, with the Opals forward tallying 14 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, and a block in her final game, with the stat line fittingly demonstrating her ability to impact the game in all facets. Smith will now have just over a week to wait before hearing her name at the WNBA Draft on April 10, in which she is projected to be a top-10 pick, having been named an AP Second Team All-American shortly before her final college game.
Of the four Australians remaining in the WNIT, the only ones to hit the court in the third round were Pepperdine pair Mia Satie and Monique Andriuolo, who travelled to Laramie to face Wyoming. Satie started for the Waves and tallied 3 points and 4 rebounds in 19 minutes, whilst Andriuolo played 3 minutes off the bench in a barnburner of a game. Pepperdine spent much of the game trailing by a minimal margin, but tied things up in the final minute and had a chance to win the game after a late free throw put Wyoming up 61-60. Unfortunately, the attempted buzzer-beater was off the mark, bringing an end to the Waves’ season with a heartbreaking loss.
Jess Sancataldo and Ella Hellessey both advanced to the semi-finals as Northwestern and TCU each picked up a pair of wins, although neither player saw the court in either game. Northwestern clawed back from deficits in both games to secure a 56-54 win on the road at West Virginia before eking out a 61-58 victory over Ohio. Meanwhile, TCU snuck home 82-78 against Arkansas before finishing on a 23-5 run to knock off Cincinnati. The Aussie pair are on opposite sides of the draw, so we could yet see Aussies on both sides in the championship game, even if the likelihood of either player seeing court time appears low at this point.
The lone Australian remaining in the WBI, Nicola Mathews’ Appalachian State side are just one win from securing their second WBI championship after the Mountaineers secured a 70-57 win over Campbell to move into the title game against North Texas. Mathews saw only minimal playing time in the win, seeing the court for just a minute of action.