The Big Ten had a big day Tuesday in the 2021 women’s basketball tournament, including a defining moment for Michigan. But it was a tough day for the SEC, with another early trip to Tennessee. Stanford, UConn, North Carolina and South Carolina, each ranked No. 1, advanced to the Sweet 16, where everyone hoped to see – UConn and Paige Buchers against Iowa and Caitlin Clark, who scored 35 points Tuesday – await. The Big Ten has a chance to make even more noise on Wednesday when eight more teams place their regional semifinals. Our team – Charlie Cream, Mechelle Voipel and Royce Young of ESPN – gave their opinions. Follow this link for Wednesday’s NCAA Tournament opening times, and visit this page to check your bracket for the Women’s Challenge Tournament.
It was a good tournament for the Big Ten, with two teams in the Sweet 16. Will the three Big Ten teams playing Wednesday get better?
Voepel: It certainly could have been better, but Tuesday was pretty good for the Big Ten in the River Walk area. After no. 6 Michigan no. 3 Tennessee had defeated, 70-55, coach Kim Barnes Arico said the Wolverines were a top-16 team for the first time: It’s great that Michigan is not only a football and basketball school, but also a women’s basketball school.
In his 10th and final year at St. Mary’s In his first season at St. John’s, Barnes Arico led the Red Storm to the Sweet 16 in 2012. She earned a spot at Michigan, but failed in her three previous attempts to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines dominated Tuesday’s game and advanced to the regional semifinals. Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon (19 points, 15 rebounds) and teammate Leigh Brown (23 points) dominated on offense and defense. The Wolverines didn’t seem themselves in their Big Ten quarterfinal loss against Northwestern, but led by Hillmon and Brown, they were an NCAA Tournament team.
Tuesday’s victory moved Hillmon to tears: I think I got a lot of individual awards this year, and that’s always great. But to see how much work my team has put in all year and to finally be recognized by the team is the best reward I can get.
In Iowa’s victory over fifth-ranked Kentucky, the Hawkeyes led 23-11 after the first quarter and didn’t give up. Clark has 58 points and 13 assists in his first two NCAA Tournament games.
It looks like the Big Ten has a good chance of making it to the Sweet 16 with at least two other teams. Wednesday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 1 p.m. ET), the No. 2 seed in the Hemisphere region, Maryland, takes on Alabama in a game that could get interesting if the Crimson Tide’s offense is as good as it was in the first-round victory over North Carolina, when 11 three-pointers were made. Indiana, seeded fourth in the Mercado Region, will try to avoid a loss against 12th-seeded Belmont (ESPNU/ESPN App, 5 p.m. ET). And No. 7 seeded Northwestern will try to beat No. 2 seeded Louisville (ESPN2/ESPN App, 5 p.m. ET) at the Alamo.
Cream: After the success of Iowa and Michigan, two low-scoring teams against higher-scoring opponents, it would be disappointing if the Big Ten did not place four teams in the Sweet 16.
Maddie Nolan and Michigan are on their way to their first Sweet 16. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
Alabama is experienced and can be explosive, but Maryland is a heavy favorite in this contest. The Crimson Tide couldn’t slow down the SEC’s best offense during the regular season – South Carolina scored an average of 80 points in three games against them, and Arkansas scored 94 points in one game – and now they’re up against the nation’s highest-scoring team. The Terps average six players in double figures. Katie Benzan is making more than half of her 3-point shots and leads the country in accuracy. Ashley Owusu is an All-American. Freshman Angel Reese, the second recruit of the 2020 class, is healthy and back in the rotation. Diamond Miller (first team), Chloe Bibby (honorable mention) and Mimi Collins (honorable mention) all made it to the Big Ten. This talent is incredible.
Indiana should be a good fit, too. Belmont was outstanding in the win over Gonzaga, slowing the pace, filling the middle and forcing 20 turnovers. The Hoosiers’ offense is more diverse: Mackenzie Holmes, Ali Patberg and Grace Berger average over 14 points per game and Indiana ranks seventh in the country in turnover margin. In the last two NCAA tournaments, the double-digit seeds are 2-5 in the second round.
Of course, Northwestern’s task against second-seeded Louisville is far more important, but if Maryland and Indiana continue, the Pac-12 is the only conference that can play the Big Ten and have four teams in the Sweet Sixteen.
Tennessee was eliminated in the first round for its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. What went wrong in San Antonio and what’s next for the Lady Vols?
Rennia Davis and Tennessee went 2-for-14 (14.3 percent) on three-pointers and 33.9 percent from the field in Tuesday’s loss. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
Voepel: Tennessee coach Kelly Harper said the Wolverines’ physical play worried the Lady Vols, who never seemed to find a good rhythm throughout the game. Tennessee made 2 of 14 three-point shots. But Harper felt that the Lady Vols’ many mistakes inside – influenced by Michigan’s defense – were just as big a problem.
Tennessee has had its ups – like the win over South Carolina in the regular season – and downs – like Tuesday’s loss – this season. The Lady Vols have scored 52 points (against the Gamecocks in the SEC tournament) and 55 points in their last two defeats.
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Tennessee has made it to every NCAA Tournament so far, losing only in the first round to Ball State in 2009. The idea that Tennessee had no players with Sweet 16 experience in recent years seemed absurd. But that’s exactly the situation the Lady Vols find themselves in this season.
In my entire career as a head coach, I feel like this experience has been very helpful for next year, Harper said. I think this will be a growth for our team in the future. It’s a process: There are many ways to learn to win and understand what it takes to win.
You can turn on the television and see teams walking around with a different kind of confidence because they’ve been through all this.
The fact is that no program other than #11 UConn has done it more than #8 Lady Vols. Former coach Holly Warlick lost her job largely due to early NCAA losses in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Harper knew that, even as a beloved alumna with three playing titles, she would feel the heat from the start as she tried to restore Tennessee to its former glory. This project will be a real challenge, to say the least. Lady Vols fans probably won’t be too disappointed with the Sweet 16’s performance in this, the Lady Vols coach’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since she led the previous three teams to the Big Dance. But the second onion adds a little more to the pressure cooker.
Cream: Mehel is stalling. The Lady Vols, especially offensively, were too inconsistent. One of those bad offensive days was on Tuesday.
It’s especially hard for Tennessee to win when Rennia Davis is struggling. Against Michigan, she scored 12 points on 4-of-17 shooting. Davis was involved in seven of the Lady Vols’ eight defeats, averaging 14.6 points and shooting 36 percent from the field. Harper put together a solid team, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the absence of his best player.
Potential game that everyone expects on selection day, officially: Wunderkinds Paige Buchers and Caitlin Clark and UConn and Iowa meet in the round of 16. How did you find the game?
Paige Buchers scored 20 points and UConn knocked Syracuse out of the NCAA tournament and sent it to the Sweet 16.
Youth: In this game, everyone was quietly hoping to get into the tournament, and both teams – and their outstanding freshmen – were doing everything they could to get there. Clark and Buchers are already downplaying the competitive element, talking about UConn vs. Iowa and so on. Sure, that’s great, but in a game that often boils down to individual excellence, the idea of two incredible talents falling from grace matters not just to the tournament, but to basketball in general.
Apparently, my good friend Clark was talking about the Bewackers. Major player. But we’re both going to say that we’re not going to win this game alone, no matter who wins it.
And while that is clearly the case and the supporting cast will play their part, Clark has a much heavier burden to carry than his team. The Bueckers have the backing of a UConn machine, with talent and depth – albeit young – and other great players like Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Alia Edwards. Monica Chinano is one of the most effective playmakers in the country, but the Hawks don’t have the same two-way firepower.
And while Iowa is an excellent offensive team, its defense is its weakness (last in the country in defensive performance during the season). Although there has been significant improvement so far in the tournament, Iowa and Clark will shock the world as the Hawkeyes play their best defensive game of the season.
Cream: Is it too obvious to make many points? Both will score, and Clark probably more, but the only lucky rookie in this game will be on the winning side. If this team is at Iowa, another game with Clark, like Tuesday’s against Kentucky, will likely be needed. And with UConn on the other side, it may take even longer.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Buchers spends the early stages of the game getting others involved. Clark has assists, and his impressive 7.1 assists per game proves that, but not the same level of assists as Booker, so Clark may not have that luxury.
It would be fun to see the Bueckers and Clark battle it out with mini points, but what might disappoint some is that defensively they are probably not up to the task. UConn will mix zones and as the Huskies go man-to-man. Christina Williams or Evina Westbrook is Clark’s most likely opponent.
Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark scored 35 points and led the Hawkeyes to an 86-72 victory over Kentucky in the second round of the tournament.
Voepel: These are the matches every sport dreams of: two young superstars in the same position competing against each other in a knockout match. That said, there will be a lot more going on in this match than Clark and Booker; so everyone will be playing along, which will likely determine the winner. But all eyes will be on the teens and their chess games against each other.
Viewers who are tired of UConn (all fans except Huskies) will join Hawkeye Nation as big Iowa fans. And the fact is, regardless of the outcome of this match, it’s cool to think that this is just the beginning for these two players.
Name another player who impressed you on Tuesday?
Voepel: A round of applause for No. 5 Georgia Tech, which reached the Round of 16 for the second time in program history, and Lorela Kubai, the senior forward from Italy. After a narrow 54-52 win in overtime in the first round against a Stephen F. Austin actually seeded No. 12, the Yellow Jackets defeated No. 4 West Virginia 73-56. Kubage led the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds Tuesday and is averaging 12.4 points and 11.7 rebounds per game this season. We’ll see how she does in the regional semifinals against Alya Boston and the #1 seed, South Carolina.
Cream: A knee injury left Kayla Jones on the bench and Eliza Coonan struggling on 3-for-15 shots as NC State sophomore Jakia Brown-Turner took an early lead. Brown-Turner’s 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting led the Wolfpack against South Florida in a game they could not have won without her. Jada Boyd, who was in the starting lineup in place of Jones, was also solid. Boyd scored seven of his 18 points in the decisive third quarter, in which NC State outscored USF 24-11.
Youth: Honestly, I’m tempted to disregard the advice and talk a little more about Caitlin Clark, but a tip to Kentucky’s Ryne Howard is in order. The Wildcats got off to a bad start, leading 11-0 in the opening minutes and leading not only Iowa but Clark himself at the break.
Kentucky has had a difficult season, with the surprising and forced resignation of head coach Matthew Mitchell after he suffered a serious head injury in a fall during a vacation. But the Wildcats have responded all season under assistant head coach Kier Elzy, and showed composure in the second half against Iowa. The game was never this close, but Howard fought to the end, scoring 28 points in 38 minutes and notching eight assists and six steals. It’s a wonderful way to go out.
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