In soccer, this would be called the Group of Death. The Oklahoma City Regional for the women’s Sweet 16 that begins Friday is the only grouping that went chalk after the first two rounds.
But even before the NCAA tournament began, this regional shaped up to be the most brutal and I think intriguing of them all. At least to me.
Now that the top four seeds have gotten to Oklahoma City, what a treat these games should be: No. 2 Mississippi State vs. No. 3 Washington in the first game of Friday’s doubleheader, followed by No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 4 Louisville in a rematch of their incredible Elite 8 game from 2013, played in the very same building from four years ago.
That remains one of the more memorable NCAA women’s tournament games in my book: Louisville raced out to a big lead, and nearly squandered it all away before knocking off Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims and the then-defending NCAA champions by an 82-81 score.
That hardly summed up the audacious drama in that game: Shoni Schimmel’s fastbreak basket over Brittney Griner, as she threw in a twisting reverse layup over her head. Schimmel hit the deck as the shot nestled in, was fouled on the play, and jumped right up to get into Griner’s grill, letting out something of a primal scream.
My social media feeds went all Louisville-Baylor at that point, from guys needing a hoops fix before the men’s Final Four, or wanting something different than mid-season NBA fare.
The Schimmel-Griner play came at a point when the Cardinals were flying high in the game. In the final seconds, with Baylor desperate to take the lead, the Bears were called for charging on a questionable call. I don’t think the Louisville defender’s feet were set. But a basket was waved off, and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey went nuts on the sideline, shedding her jacket to reveal a halter top, and having to be more restrained than one of her usual tirades by longtime assistant coach Bill Brock.
After the game, Louisville Jeff Walz conducted a hilarious press conference in response to all the histrionics, and the Cardinals were on their way to the Final Four, where they lost to UConn in the first of four NCAA titles by Breanna Stewart and company.
All those players from that 2013 game are gone, of course, but the coaches are not, and their teams are absolutely loaded. After falling to West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament finals, Baylor looks absolutely terrifying, especially with Alexis Jones back from an injury.
Kalani Brown has been unstoppable for the Bears and is an imposing figure in the paint. Lousville got a big contribution from guard Mariya Moore in its second round win over Tennessee, adding to the offensive potency of Myisha-Hines Allen in the middle and sophomore guard Asia Durr, who is having a breakthrough season. Freshman Kylie Shook has also become a very important contributor to this team.
The Cardinals are deep, and quick and have the swagger that comes from playing for Walz. Baylor has a swagger of its own, and another incentive if it should survive this regional: Win in Oklahoma City, and play in the Final Four in Dallas, not far up the road from Waco.
Yet the Mississippi State-Washington game that precedes Louisville-Baylor is hardly an undercard. The Huskies boast all-time NCAA scoring leader Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor, the nation’s leading rebounder, from a team that reached the Final Four last season. In Mississippi State, however, they’ll be facing a rugged defensive-oriented team that’s showing some eye-popping scoring prowess. The Bulldogs scored 92 points in defeating DePaul over the weekend, and Vic Schaefer has been working hard to improve his team’s offensive potency. The key for his team figures to be the start for All-American candidate Victoria Vivians, who’s been struggling in the post-season. If she’s slow to get going, that could be a problem against a very savvy Washington team.
Coaching legends and elite programs are dispersed throughout what’s left of the field: In Bridgeport, UConn’s bid for five national championships in a row stays very close to home. Maryland, the No. 3 seed, gave the Huskies a very close call in December in a six-point loss in College Park.
In order for that rematch to take place, they’ll have to get by two Pac 12 teams. UConn plays UCLA in the semifinals, while Maryland faces Oregon, a No. 10 seed which upset Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday.
I love these young Ducks, with freshman sensations Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard. They play free and easy and Kelly Graves has done a terrific job rebuilding this program in just his third season since coming from Gonzaga.
There’s a bright future in Eugene, but Oregon will have its hands full against a Maryland team boasting seniors Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones and a terrific freshman point guard in Destiny Slocum.
A Pac 12 legend, Tara VanDerveer, is leading Stanford back to the Lexington Regional for the second year in a row. The Cardinal upset Notre Dame before losing to Washington. On Friday, they’ll get Texas in the semifinals in Rupp Arena, after the Irish play Ohio State in the opener.
That first game will take on a very different dimension without Brianna Turner in the lineup for Notre Dame. The junior center tore an ACL in a second round overtime win against Purdue, and she’s out for the rest of the tournament.
Still, Notre Dame has plenty of weapons and experience, led by senior point guard Lindsay Allen. This will be more of a perimeter-oriented team, to be sure, which may suit the way Ohio State wants to play.
The Buckeyes return to Lexington after their thrilling OT win against Kentucky. Kelsey Mitchell was on fire in that game, and she’ll need to be again on Friday. A big question for Ohio State is the availability of injured post player Stephanie Mavunga, who’s been out since late in the regular season.
Also on injury watch is South Carolina’s Allisha Gray, who got hurt in the Gamecocks’ gritty win over Arizona State. With Alaina Coates out for the rest of the tourney, even Dawn Staley’s deeply talented team can’t afford another key player to be out or limited.
Kaela Davis stepped in a big way over the weekend, and if she and A’ja Wilson keep clicking as they have, South Carolina shouldn’t have trouble beating No. 12 seed Quinnipiac, the Cinderella of this Dance. The Bobcats were sensational upsetting Marquette and Miami, but they’ve got a very tall order ahead of them in Stockton.
Florida State meets Oregon State in the other semifinal in Stockton. The Seminoles went through a late-season funk but rolled over Missouri to get to their third consecutive women’s Sweet 16. For the second year in a row, the Beavers are one of the best stories in the sport. Following a Final Four season and the loss of two All-American caliber players, they won the Pac 12—the toughest in the country—and play some of the best defense in the country.
Scott Rueck has proved he’s one of the best coaches in the game in the toughest proving ground there is. Five Pac 12 teams have reached the women’s Sweet 16 a year after two of them got to the Final Four.
I’ve written elsewhere that ESPN missed the boat on showcasing the upsets in the early stages of the tournament, and that’s an issue the NCAA must address at some point. Sticking with blowouts is not a good way to present what’s been an outstanding tournament thus far.
From this point forward, the games are all televised on more than outlet, and with most of the big names in the sport still in action. For young players and hardcore fans, there’s no good reason not to watch the women’s Sweet 16.