Half of the Sweet 16 of the 2022 women’s NCAA tournament is set, but after one of the most unpredictable opening days of the second round in recent memory, it’s not the lineup most predicted. For the first time since 2016, a pair of top-two seeds went out in the first two rounds, and the regional semifinals will include at least two double-digit seeds for the first time since 2018. Iowa Hawkeyes sophomore Caitlin Clark and Baylor Bears senior NaLyssa Smith, two of the leading candidates for national player of the year, are out of the tournament. Sunday was a wild day.
The 10th-seeded Creighton Bluejays got it started by shutting down the best offense in the country and eliminating red-hot Iowa. Then the No. 10-seeded South Dakota Coyotes led from start to finish and thoroughly dominated Baylor.
This year’s eight wins by double-digit seeds in the first two rounds ties the NCAA tournament mark previously set in 2018 — and the 11th-seeded Villanova Wildcats and Princeton Tigers, as well as the No. 12-seeded Belmont Bruins, play Monday.
Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel break down all of Sunday’s top storylines — including the South Carolina Gamecocks‘ offensive struggles and whether we’re seeing increased parity in the women’s game — and take a look at what to expect Monday as the second round wraps up.
What happened to 2-seed Iowa against Creighton and No. 2 Baylor against South Dakota?
Monica McNutt details how South Dakota dominated Baylor to eliminate them from the tournament.
So far, there have been eight wins by double-digit seeds in the first two rounds, tying the record set in 2018. Is this a sign of the parity we’ve been talking about for so long?
Voepel: I think we’ve seen more parity in recent seasons than people always remember or give the game credit for. Look at as recently as 2019 — 2020 was a little different just because the tournament was all played in the San Antonio area — and there was a No. 11 seed in the Sweet 16 (Missouri State) along with a No. 5 and two No. 6 seeds. In 2018, there were two No. 11 seeds (Buffalo, Central Michigan) in the regional semis, along with a No. 5 and No. 6. In 2017, a No. 10 seed (Oregon) and a No. 12 (Quinnipiac) made it that far, along with a No. 5. And in 2016, a No. 7 seed (Washington) made it all the way to the Final Four.
It seems to me like a lot of people get amnesia every year about the parity issue as if it’s always a brand-new thing. I think the game has been steadily growing all along. Now, does it take it to a different level when two No. 2 seeds go down on the same day, and when there have been eight victories so far by double-digit seeds? I hope it gets recognized. Because this has been an important tournament so far in showing how tough it has become to get out of the early rounds.
Look at a program like Iowa State, which has been consistently good for a quarter-century under coach Bill Fennelly, yet had not been to the Sweet 16 since 2010. That drought ended with the Greensboro No. 3 seed Cyclones’ 67-44 victory over No. 6 Georgia in the second round Sunday. But Iowa State has been on the other side of this recently; as a No. 3 seed in 2019, the Cyclones lost to the aforementioned Missouri State squad in the second round. That came on Iowa State’s home court.
“The first two rounds have become … it’s hard. It should be hard,” Fennelly said. “That’s what the NCAA tournament is about. You really have to get your team to understand the moment. One bad shooting night, it’s done. It’s not four out of seven.”
Lauren Jensen hits the big 3-pointer to put Creighton ahead of Iowa with less than 15 seconds to play.
Creme: Voepel is right. There has been more parity in the game than most people want to acknowledge. What has happened so far in this tournament is fun and different, but not unprecedented. We’ve seen multiple double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16 before. Central Michigan and Buffalo just did it four years ago. We’ve also seen No. 2 seeds lose in the second round. That happened in 2016 when Arizona State and Maryland were upset.
To go to the next level and continue to call what we are seeing parity, I want to see more. If South Dakota can get through to another round or even make the Final Four, that’s parity. If, for instance, Belmont and Princeton also win on Monday and we have four double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16, that’s parity. If multiple teams other than Nos. 1 and 2 seeds are in Minneapolis, that’s parity.
South Carolina never seemed to get going offensively in its second-round win over Miami. How concerned are you about the Gamecocks?
Philippou: Miami is a defensive-minded team, and South Carolina’s offensive issues aren’t exactly new, so I wasn’t shocked that the Gamecocks had trouble getting going against the Hurricanes. That said, shooting 29.5% from the field to go along with 16 turnovers must be pretty concerning to Dawn Staley. You can get away with that against a team like Miami (even still, the Hurricanes cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth). I’m not sure how that’ll hold up against teams in the later rounds of the tournament that are also strong defensively but have more offensive firepower than Miami.
You could say that the fact Aliyah Boston had an uncharacteristic night (4-for-15 shooting, 10 points) and the Gamecocks still won by 16 is a good sign. But my bigger concern is that no one else is really stepping up to consistently help Boston, specifically the backcourt. Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke combined for 6-of-21 shooting from the field (17 points) and eight turnovers. While Cooke hit 2 of 3 3-pointers, the rest of the team went 2-of-15. And it’s not just a Miami problem; Henderson and Cooke shot 4-of-24 for 11 points (3-for-17 on 3s) against Howard in the first round.
More and more teams are going to pack the paint at this rate, making life tougher for Boston and making the Gamecocks easier to beat. And in the year 2022, I do not believe defense and rebounding alone wins championships; yes, you need to defend, but you need to put the ball in the hoop. And South Carolina has been inconsistent at best in doing that down the stretch of the season.
After 1-seed South Carolina defeats 8-seed Miami, Aliyah Boston says Gamecocks need to keep up good defense since competition is only getting tougher.
Creme: Since their win over Stanford just before Christmas, the Gamecocks have been the best team in the country. I can’t say that anymore. The defense is incredible. The 54 points South Carolina has allowed in two NCAA tournament games shatters the previous mark of 71. But no championship favorite scores only 49 points in a game.
I’m not writing off South Carolina. With Iowa no longer in the Greensboro Regional, I would be shocked if the Gamecocks don’t reach the Final Four. They have the ability to smother any possible future opponent in the region. But that won’t happen against the likes of NC State, Stanford, Louisville, Maryland or UConn. The offense just isn’t good enough right now.
The Gamecocks’ inability to score easily and consistently enough in the half court already cost them in the SEC tournament championship game against Kentucky. It almost did a game earlier against Ole Miss. The presumption was that those games would be a learning moment. Sunday was an indication that nothing has changed, but the concern is bigger than one or two games. In their past 12 games, the Gamecocks’ effective field goal percentage has been above 50% just three times. On six occasions it was below 40%. Effective field goal percentage gives weighted value to 3-point shooting and is the most accurate statistical measure of an offense’s true impact. For a frame of reference, Sunday’s giant killer Creighton has an effective field goal percentage of 53.9%.
Beating the other top teams in the country with an offensive efficiency at the level South Carolina is producing now seems unlikely, even with the country’s best defense.
Player of the year candidates and All-Americans were on the court Sunday. Who impressed you most individually?
Emily Engstler wows the crowd as she executes an incredible spin move for a nice bucket on the fast break.
Creme: Another way to look at the parity question is to examine what happened on Sunday with the best players in the game and the players who shined. Sunday illustrated just how deep the talent pool in the sport is.
The three top candidates for player of the year were in action and none of them was particularly good. Boston rebounded well, but her tough shooting day was a big reason for South Carolina’s offensive struggles. Smith was stymied by a smaller South Dakota defense. Clark had one of the toughest games of her career.
Instead, Stanford’s Lexie Hull shot her way to a career-high 36 points. Hull is considered the third-best player on her own team, but had the biggest scoring output of anyone on Sunday.
Lexi Donarski with the massive stuff at the rim
Maryland’s Diamond Miller, whose season was slowed by injury and some inconsistency, was dynamic on Sunday against Florida Gulf Coast with 24 points and nine rebounds. She now has 47 points in two NCAA tournament games and the Terps have quietly been one of the most dominant teams.
The play of Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith has been just as quiet, but she has scored 20 and 21 points in the Cardinals’ two wins. And Chloe Lamb has made half of her 3-pointers and is averaging 17.5 points per game in South Dakota’s run.
Diamond Miller steals the rock and lays it in to extend the Terrapins’ lead in the fourth quarter.
Voepel: Iowa State point guard Emily Ryan is from the same hometown — Claflin, Kansas — as the great Missouri State legend Jackie Stiles, and was coached in high school by Stiles’ father, Pat. The sophomore point guard knows she’s going to get the business from every opposing team’s defense, but she won’t back down. She had 15 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds against Georgia on Saturday, and fellow sophomore guard Lexi Donarski had 20 points. The Cyclones have been led by senior Ashley Joens all season, and she had a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) Sunday. But it was good news for Iowa State to get such good performances from its younger guards, too, especially considering the Cyclones will face a guard-oriented Creighton team in the Sweet 16.
Spokane No. 2 seed Texas also got a strong game from a young player in its victory over Utah. Freshman forward Aaliyah Moore had a season-high 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the field, which bodes well for the Longhorns’ Sweet 16 matchup with either LSU or Ohio State.
Philippou: These weren’t All-American candidates, but South Dakota’s Liv Korngable, Chloe Lamb and Hannah Sjerven deserve a shoutout. The trio of super seniors combined for 42 of the Coyotes’ 61 points to clinch their program’s first Sweet 16 bid with a win over Baylor. Bears coach Nicki Collen pointed to that trio’s experience and chemistry in helping South Dakota pull off the upset.
And then there’s Creighton’s Lauren Jensen, who transferred from Iowa and ended up sinking 19 points (3-of-7 shooting from 3), including the go-ahead, game-winning trey with 12.6 seconds left, that sent the Hawkeyes packing. That play alone is nothing short of legendary.
Which Monday matchup intrigues you the most?
Creme: I like offense, so my eyes immediately found Oklahoma-Notre Dame (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2) on the bracket. No. 4 seeds vs. No. 5 seeds are always attractive matchups and the atmosphere in Norman should be outstanding.
The Sooners are the third-highest scoring team in the country (82.3 PPG) and the Irish rank in the top 30 (73.5 PPG). Beyond the numbers, the styles of play are fun to watch. Both teams prefer to play in transition to get as many easy baskets as possible. Oklahoma is ranked second nationally in possessions per 40 minutes, and Notre Dame is at its best when Olivia Miles has the ball in space to create. Her 7.3 assists per game are second only to Clark. Oklahoma’s Madi Williams (18.3 PPG) and Taylor Robertson (17.1 PPG) are one of the highest-scoring duos in the country, and Robertson is the nation’s most prolific 3-point shooter.
Most projections have both teams scoring in the high 70s or 80s. If the shooting is good, the scores could go higher than that.
Philippou: UCF is playing some impressive basketball right now, and despite being most known for their physical, stingy defense, the Knights got a lot done offensively against Florida in the first round Saturday, which included a career-high 26 points from post Brittney Smith. On Monday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) I’m eager to see how UConn deals with that sort of defensive intensity and aggressiveness, especially after the Huskies committed way too many turnovers early in their first-round game against Mercer. UCF is a better team than when UConn last played it in the 2019-20 season (the Huskies, to be clear, are better, too).
Voepel: Spokane No. 3 seed LSU really had to pull it out of the fire Saturday, surviving 83-77 thanks to a late surge against No. 14 Jackson State. How will the Tigers react against No. 6 Ohio State, the co-Big Ten regular-season champion, when they meet Monday in Baton Rouge (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2)? The Buckeyes had a grind-it-out victory over Missouri State in the first round in which they were outrebounded by 18 but won at the foul line.
LSU has been guard-oriented all season, and Jailin Cherry and Khayla Pointer combined for 50 points against Jackson State. But center Faustine Aifuwa also had a big game with 17 points and 14 rebounds, and she could be a difference-maker Monday, too.