Through the first two rounds of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, we were all spoiled by a slew of close, fun games, including three tight overtimes. There were more second-round upsets on the women’s side than on the men’s (here’s looking at Arizona State, South Dakota State, UCLA, and Missouri State) — but even when chalk prevailed, the majority of games were toss-ups most of the way through.
The stars stepped up, too. All four No. 1 seeds (and No. 2-seeded UConn, naturally) throttled their first-round opponents in brutal fashion. UConn’s victory wasn’t even the most gruesome: that honor goes to both Mississippi State, who hung 100 on a beleaguered Southern (the final score was 103-46) thanks in large part to double-doubles by leaders Teaira McCowan and Anriel Howard, and Baylor, who held Abilene Christian to 38 points with the starters playing under two quarters (final score was 95-38). Iowa’s Megan Gustafson showed off her post prowess to the tune of 35 rebounds over the first two games. Central Michigan star Reyna Frost wowed with 34 points in her team’s loss to Michigan, the most of any single player in the tournament so far.
All that before the Sweet 16 kicks off Friday, where the competition will only get tighter and the games (hopefully!) even more blissfully chaotic. Below are some of the most fun/heartbreaking/thrilling/anxiety-inducing/inspiring tournament moments so far.
1. Michigan State’s Shay Colley sank a game-winning layup with eight seconds left to ice the upset
Central Michigan and Michigan State played close all game long. The Spartans asserted themselves early thanks to plays like Taryn McCutcheon’s absurd steal for a stop-and-shoot three, but remarkable performances by Frost and Presley Hudson kept the Chippewas hanging around — they never let Michigan State’s lead get bigger than 12 points.
The game was so tight that the Spartans were down one point with 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter. That is, they were down one point until 5’9 redshirt junior Shay Colley decided that Michigan State was going to win. Spoiler alert: they did.
2. Cierra Dillard and the Buffalo Bulls were down 24 against UConn — and kept battling anyway
The Buffalo Bulls are the stuff March-style fairytales are made of: the scrappiest of underdogs, who came out of conference play 12-6 and won the MAC title anyway. A team whose tallest starter, Summer Hemphill, is 6’1 and that relies heavily on minutes from the tough-as-nails sophomore Hanna Hall — generously listed at 5’3. Nobody gave them a ghost of a chance vs. the monolith that is UConn women’s basketball. Even in a comparatively “down” year like this one, UConn is stacked top to bottom with some of the most talented players in the country, and is coached by one of the most successful coaches of all time, in any sport.
But none of those indisputable facts seemed to matter to Bulls coach Felisha Legette-Jack and her team, led by undeniable leading scorer and ridiculously fun playmaker Cierra Dillard. They let UConn get out to an 15-0 start; they started chipping away, but the Huskies were still ahead by as much as 24 late in the third quarter. That’s the point at which any sane team would have waved the white flag, would have acquiesced to UConn’s relentless attack.
Thankfully, the Bulls are not sane — in the best possible way. They fought back, getting stops and steals and the kinds of turnovers that had Geno Auriemma visibly incensed. When Dillard went down with a bad ankle sprain in the fourth quarter, the Bulls were behind by 15 points. Minus their leading scorer, though, that comparatively manageable gap suddenly looked insurmountable — to those watching. The Bulls, though, were unfazed, stopping the Huskies on nine straight possessions and closing the gap to single digits with just under three minutes left. Dillard came back in the game, limping across the court and making clutch plays all the same.
UConn pulled through, as they are wont to do. But it was the exact kind of near-triumph over the odds — the proof that maybe perseverance and effort, not talent or luck, are the things that make us successful — that so many of us watch sports to see. Dillard’s postgame quotes, via The Buffalo News, also might be the best thing to come out of the tournament so far.
“A lot of people come into UConn, and nobody’s won here, but a lot of teams get blown out. A lot of ranked teams get beat. They can’t say they walked over us. UConn cannot say they walked over Buffalo. UConn cannot say that Buffalo didn’t give them a fight. They can’t say that we laid down. We could have — the first quarter, the second quarter, halftime — we were down by 20, and we end up losing by 12. I think if we had five more minutes we could have given them a run for their money. I think they would have been in real trouble.”
3. Boise State came inches from one of the biggest OT upsets in women’s tournament history
The match-up between No. 4 seed Oregon State and No. 13 seed Boise State should have been a breeze for Beaver Nation — and for much of the first half. Certainly the Broncos kept the score a little close for comfort, but Destiny Slocum and her compadres seemed more or less in control. In the third quarter, though, Oregon State went cold and Boise came charging back thanks in large part to the efforts of senior Marta Hermida, whose perfectly timed threes spurred her team to get hot from behind the arc. They forced overtime, but missed the three that would have forced a second one — even without it, though, the game was perfectly anxiety-inducing.
4. Chennedy Carter proved, once again, that her game justifies her swagger
Texas A&M sophomore Carter is excellent, and she knows it — and that might rub some people the wrong way (they’re probably the same people who think college athletes should be grateful for the opportunity to make their schools millions of dollars). But in the Aggies’ second-round match-up vs. Marquette, Carter showed exactly why she can shoulder shimmy (her preferred celebration) as much as she wants. With 30 points, nine rebounds and five assists, she battled a worthy foe in Marquette’s Natisha Hiedeman (18 points, six rebounds and seven assists) but came out on top.
In the end, it was Carter’s excellent court vision and passing ability — not her status as one of the college game’s most fearless shooters — that helped A&M win in the final 30 seconds of the game. Down two points, she drew half the Marquette team to her in the lane and somehow tossed a dime to a wide-open Shambria Washington, who then hit nothing but net.
5. Miami botched an inbound with 10 seconds left and lost
If there’s a more painful way to lose a second-round NCAA tournament game than getting an inbound stolen in a tie game with 10 seconds left on the clock, I can’t imagine it.
6. Sabrina Ionescu got her 18th triple-double … on purpose
Triple-doubles had been on many NCAA tournament viewers’ minds thanks to Ja Morant’s spell-binding performance with Murray State in the first round of the men’s tournament — a performance that was praised as the first triple-double in the NCAA tournament since 2012, when in fact there had been four on the women’s side since then.
— Across the Timeline (@WBBTimeline) March 21, 2019
Ionescu, a junior and the reigning record holder across the NCAA for both career and single-season triple-doubles, decided to ice the cake with her second career tournament triple-double vs. Indiana Sunday night. With 29 points — tying Dwayne Wade for the most points in a triple-double in NCAA tournament history — 10 rebounds and 12 assists, she once again proved herself as the player to beat in the women’s college game today. What happened after the game just turned the entire event into even more of a flex.
7. UCLA sealed their second-round upset with a way-too-easy outlet pass and layup
UCLA might not be the biggest Cinderella going into the Sweet 16 — that honor goes to No. 11-seeded Missouri State — but they’re certainly arriving in style. After battling in a super-close game (the game’s largest point margin was eight points), Kennedy Burke and Michaela Onyenwere beat Maryland at home with a positively disrespectful outlet pass and layup — the exact style you need when heading into a matchup with UConn in Albany, where they haven’t lost in over a decade.