- Charlie Creme projects the women’s NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN.com.
- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
Everyone said it was a wide-open NCAA women’s basketball tournament. The 2021 women’s Elite Eight is set, and while the race to the national championship seemed like an eight-team affair throughout the regular season, few expected the regional finals would look like this group of eight.
That three of the four No. 1 seeds — Stanford, UConn and South Carolina — and No. 2 seeds Baylor and Louisville advanced isn’t surprising. But third-seeded Arizona, No. 4 seed Indiana and sixth-seeded Texas crashed the party.
The Longhorns provided that biggest shocker, shutting down Maryland and the nation’s top offense Sunday to reach the regional final in Vic Schaefer’s first season in Austin.
The Elite Eight opens Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) when UConn and Baylor — two of the No. 1 seeds in our reseeded Elite Eight — meet for just the second time in the NCAA tournament but in a game that has a Final Four atmosphere. In Monday’s nightcap (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), both Arizona and Indiana are seeking their first appearance in the national semifinals.
1. Stanford Cardinal (Original seed: No. 1. Reseed: No. 1)
The Cardinal were plenty impressive during the regular season to earn the No. 1 overall seed. But in two significant ways they have been even better in their first three games in San Antonio. During the regular season the Cardinal assisted on 54.6 percent of their field goals, a solid rate but just average in the national rankings. During the NCAA tournament, Tara VanDerveer’s well-sculpted offense is sharing the ball at an astonishing nearly 69 percent. Against a good Missouri State defense Sunday, Stanford had 24 assists on 33 field goals. That improvement might go hand-in-hand with the Cardinal’s 3-point shooting. After averaging eight 3-pointers per game before the NCAA tournament, Stanford has knocked down 43 in three games. That’s over 14 per contest. Seven Cardinal players made at least one 3-pointer and nine had at least one assist against the Lady Bears. Stanford’s depth, unselfishness and shooting have all gotten better at the most important time of the year. — Creme
What they’re saying in San Antonio: As good as its offense looked Sunday, Stanford had another strong game defensively, led again by Anna Wilson. VanDerveer gave the fifth-year guard an A-grade after she helped hold Missouri State’s Brice Calip to nine points on 3-of-10 shooting. Wilson also had 13 points and six rebounds.
“They were able to be comfortable all game,” Missouri State coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said of the Cardinal. “They got what they wanted on offense. They made it difficult for us on defense.”
The Cardinal seem to be having fun while also staying sharp, and VanDerveer said both are important during the length of the tournament. From the ping-pong challenge the players and staff have been competing in at their hotel to Wilson’s answer about dealing with the pressure to win, the Cardinal appear to be managing things well.
“I think looking back at this past year, this isn’t really pressure,” Wilson said. “This is an opportunity for us to go and do something really special. Pressure is people who are struggling from this past year and just regular life.
“For us, it’s really an opportunity to go out there and finish our season the way that we expect to finish it.” — Voepel
2. UConn Huskies (Original seed: No. 1. Reseed: No. 1)
Most of the doubt surrounding UConn’s chances at winning a 12th national championship this season focused on two things: The Huskies not getting pushed in the Big East Conference, and some occasional underperforming by the veteran core. UConn answered the first with a win over South Carolina on Feb. 8 and a blowout of Syracuse in the second round. The second got a resounding response in Saturday’s 92-72 win over Iowa. Christyn Williams, who has suffered through some inconsistency, and Evina Westbrook, who has spent a portion of the season deferring to teammates, were brilliant, combining for 44 points on 19-of-32 shooting. The much-anticipated Paige Bueckers-Caitlin Clark battle was taken over by UConn’s junior duo. Now that the Huskies also have freshman Aaliyah Edwards — who is averaging 18 PPG in the tournament after 10.7 PPG in the regular season — in the starting lineup, UConn’s scoring options have exploded. UConn is also the highest rated defensive team in the country, according to Her Hoop Stats. All of this would have translated into the No. 1 overall seed in the Elite Eight reseeding had Stanford not been so dominant itself. — Creme
What they’re saying in San Antonio: UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he doesn’t expect freshman guard Nika Mühl (ankle) to play in the regional final. And while the Huskies have played well without her, Baylor’s defense is significantly better than Iowa’s, so it would help Monday to have another strong guard.
Auriemma also said that assistant Shea Ralph will not be able to rejoin the team after she left San Antonio shortly after arriving due to someone in her family testing positive for COVID-19. Per NCAA policy, he explained, anyone who has left the bubble is not able to return.
Auriemma also said he feels that a seeding mistake is why Baylor and UConn are playing before the Final Four.
“I just can’t believe that we’re playing Baylor in the final eight if we’re a No. 1 seed, and supposedly we were the number two No. 1,” Auriemma said. “You mean to tell me Baylor is No. 7 (overall)? Somebody got that wrong, if you ask me.” — Voepel
3. South Carolina Gamecocks (Original seed: No. 1. Reseed: No. 1)
Even this deep in the tournament, it sometimes feels like South Carolina is still figuring out its offense. Not a team that relies on the 3-point shot — the Gamecocks rank 334th in the country in 3-point rate — they made four in the first half (equaling their per game season average) against Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, the team’s best player, sophomore Aliyah Boston, had limited touches and didn’t score before the break. Within the first two minutes of the second half, Boston scored seven points — but didn’t score again until the final minutes and turned the scoring back over to guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke, along with frontcourt mate Victaria Saxton. The Gamecocks finished with a postseason-high eight 3-pointers and shot 56 percent from the field in one of their smoothest and most varied offensive performances in the past six weeks. But it makes us wonder what a full schedule could have meant for South Carolina. — Creme
What they’re saying in San Antonio: Dawn Staley talked Sunday about the Gamecocks’ resilience, and while that can be yet another coach cliché, you can see what she means. Because as good as South Carolina is, not everything has come easily this season. Even after some games her team won comfortably, Staley was concerned with “how” they won, and the things she thought could be problems come March if they weren’t fixed.
The defensive worries, for the most part, have been fixed. As Charlie pointed out, sometimes it still seems like the offense is a work in progress — and it could be that way right until a national championship. But the Gamecocks have shown they will find alternate ways to win, and have other players besides the stars — such as Laeticia Amihere on Sunday — step forward.
Had seeds held, South Carolina would have faced offensive powerhouse Maryland next; instead, it will go against defensive power Texas. It will be another meeting for Staley with coach Vic Schaefer, with whom she faced off for many years in the SEC and in the 2017 NCAA final when he was at Mississippi State. There is a lot of familiarity there. And it will be a matchup more like an SEC game for the Gamecocks. — Voepel
4. Baylor Lady Bears (Original seed: No. 2. Reseed: No. 1)
With Saturday’s performance against Michigan, junior NaLyssa Smith might have set herself up to be the front-runner for all of next season’s national player of the year awards. The 6-foot-2 junior went 11-for-11 from the field and scored 24 points in the overtime victory. She was the best player on the floor. Still, the Lady Bears did something they almost never do: failed to put a less talented team away. Credit the Wolverines; they played well. Baylor did, too, shooting 50 percent from the floor, grabbing a rebounding edge and forcing 18 turnovers. Michigan just wouldn’t go away. Smith and DiJonai Carrington each made two huge baskets in overtime and Baylor won its 20th consecutive game — but the first in that streak by single digits. The Lady Bears have been one of the tournament’s most dominant teams, but the question now is whether they got their close win out of the way, or whether the upgrade in competition is an indicator of struggles to come. — Creme
What they’re saying in San Antonio: Baylor coach Kim Mulkey isn’t making a big deal about having to face UConn in the regional final.
“COVID cost us the opportunity to play six games this year, and four of those six were against ranked opponents,” Mulkey said, adding that likely impacted the selection committee’s decision. “We haven’t complained one bit. You just gotta go play ’em all. It will be a good game.”
As Charlie said, Smith — who has been terrific all year — has elevated even more in the NCAA tournament, and it will be interesting to watch her and Queen Egbo match up against Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Edwards.
Baylor also projects as the best defense that Bueckers has had to face this season. South Carolina’s defense is very good, too, but Bueckers scored 31 points — nine coming in overtime — when UConn beat the Gamecocks 63-59 on Feb. 8.
Mulkey, who was a point guard for two national championship teams at Louisiana Tech, appreciates what Bueckers is doing for the Huskies.
“The first thing I noticed when I saw her play is she has unbelievable court vision,” Mulkey said. “She can deliver passes to her teammates that make it very easy for them to score. You don’t see much of that in players any more. They work on their game, and all they work on is one-on-one basketball.
“I hate that we’re playing against her, because she may burn us, she’s that good on passing. She certainly can shoot and score the ball. She seems to be a player who wants to be a leader out there.” — Voepel
5. Louisville Cardinals (Original seed: No. 2. Reseed: No. 2)
Dana Evans couldn’t have picked a better time — or a bigger way — to break out of her slump. In Louisville’s first two tournament games, Evans totaled 29 points. She hit that same number against Oregon, matching her season high, in a 60-42 win over the Ducks. This was the Evans that was a two-time ACC player of the year, not the one that only shot 30 percent from the field in Louisville’s five postseason games prior to Sunday. Confident once again, Evans had no problem taking, and making, a 25-footer when the Ducks had cut the lead to six early in the fourth quarter. That started a personal 7-0 run that put Louisville up 13 and the game out of reach. Evans has played in three NCAA tournaments. She is about to play in her third Elite Eight. — Creme
What they’re saying in San Antonio: Evans was really good, and Louisville need that again to try to knock off the No. 1 overall seed in Stanford. But coach Jeff Walz also liked everything about how his defense played in shutting down Oregon. It will be tougher against a Stanford team that has so many offensive threats it’s hard to keep track of them all.
“It’s got to start with ball pressure,” Walz said. “Olivia Cochran and Liz Dixon, you know, aren’t going to get a ton of credit or a bunch of praise because everybody likes to look at what people do offensively.
“But what those two did battling (Sunday) was pretty amazing because they had their hands full. I thought they were absolutely outstanding and did a great job of making things as difficult as they could for the Oregon post players.”
Staying on the boards with Stanford also will be crucial, and Walz points out that two of his 5-7 guards rebound a lot bigger than their size would suggest.
“Mykasa Robinson and Hailey Van Lith led us in rebounding with seven each,” he said. “That’s just the grit that those two have. Those two are as tough of competitors as I’ve had come through this program in a long time. That’s just embracing physicality. Both of them are willing to do that.” — Voepel
6. Indiana Hoosiers (Original seed: No. 4. Reseed: No. 2)
The Hoosiers are no longer under the radar. Indiana put together devastating second and third quarters against NC State, the Mercado Regional’s No. 1 seed, and held on to advance to the program’s first Elite Eight. Shooting nearly 60 percent in the middle 20 minutes of the game, Indiana outscored the Wolfpack 44-26. Even if it was for just half the game, no one had put that kind of offensive efficiency together against NC State, a top-20 rated defense according to Her Hoop Stats. The balance that characterized Indiana all season was on full display. Senior Ali Patberg led the way with 17 points, and classmate Nicole Cardano-Hillary made big free throws late. All five starters scored in double figures. That offers an interesting contrast to Indiana’s next opponent, Arizona, which is led by a singular star in Aari McDonald. — Creme
What they’re saying in San Antonio: This Hoosiers team took its quarterfinal upset loss in the Big Ten tournament and learned from it, and now Indiana is a win away from the Final Four. Balance is a key, but you also have to be impressed with the progress of sophomore post player Mackenzie Holmes, who is averaging 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 60.7 percent from the field.
She’s from Maine, not a place you would expect Indiana to go looking for talent. But coach Teri Moren said one of her assistants, Rhet Wierzba, got a tip from his brother (also a coach) about this 6-3 kid who played for the Maine Firecrackers AAU team who might be worth a look.
“What I loved about her instantly was just her commitment to running the floor,” Moren said. “We didn’t know if we could pull her out of Maine.”
But Holmes visited Bloomington, Indiana, and the feeling became mutual: She loved the campus, Indiana’s basketball tradition — albeit then mostly on the men’s side — and the growing women’s fan base.
“We certainly have leaned on her in a lot of moments,” Moren said. “There’s nothing better than having a post presence like we have with Mack down there on the low block.” — Voepel
7. Arizona Wildcats (Original seed: No. 3. Reseed: No. 2)
Aari McDonald has led the resurgence of Arizona basketball, so it is only appropriate that one of the best performances of her career came in the biggest game in program history. Billed as one of the top two-way players in the country, McDonald delivered on both ends of the court against Texas A&M and the Wildcats advanced over the No. 2 seed, 74-59. One sequence in the third quarter both defined and decided the game. McDonald made a 3-pointer, harassed Aggies’ guard Alexis Morris into a turnover and then hit another 3. That completed an 18-6 run that put away Texas A&M. McDonald averaged just fewer than two 3-pointers per game in the regular season. On Saturday, she made six. McDonald’s effective field goal percentage is typically 46 percent, but was 71.4 percent against the Aggies. With 31 points, McDonald was the only Wildcat in double figures. An All-American, she was all-world on Saturday, and Arizona reached its first Elite Eight in the best season the program has ever had. — Creme
What they’re saying in San Antonio: There is something cool about things coming full circle between coach Adia Barnes and her star player, McDonald. In 1998, Barnes was the Pac-12 (then Pac-10) player of the year and led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16. Now McDonald is the player of the year, and with Barnes’ guidance has the Wildcats into the Elite Eight.
Barnes was a good defensive player in her day, but she thinks McDonald is that rare player who is truly elite on both ends of the court. Indiana has also been a good defensive team, so the Wildcats probably need to win that battle to make it to the Final Four.
“Pressuring the ball, containing one-on-one,” Barnes said of the Wildcats’ strengths. “We’ve had success turning people over. But when we haven’t, we’ve been pretty solid in our transition and half-court defense. Definitely have to play the pressure we’ve been playing; it’s gotten us this far.”
Barnes said she doesn’t think the Wildcats are feeling any pressure, and compares it to Washington’s run to the 2016 Final Four when she was a Huskies assistant.
“We were just playing our best basketball at that time … we just had a really good core that believed we could beat anybody,” Barnes said of the Huskies. “It reminds me of this team a lot. We play with passion, grit and we’re tough.” — Voepel
8. Texas Longhorns (Original seed: No. 6. Reseed: No. 2)
It’s fair to say Vic Schaefer has this defensive coaching thing figured out. As an assistant, he orchestrated slowing down Stanford and Notre Dame in the Final Four in Texas A&M’s national championship 10 years ago. He devised the plan that thwarted UConn in 2017’s massive Final Four upset as the head coach at Mississippi State. Sunday may have been his greatest wizardry. His Longhorns held Maryland, the nation’s highest scoring team to 30 points below its average, in a stunning upset, 64-61. The exceptional effort of players like Celeste Taylor (15 points, 11 rebounds), Joanne Allen-Taylor (14 points, five assists), and Charli Collier (16 points, 11 rebounds) was the secret ingredient, but no coach has the recent history of cooking up a defensive game plan like Schaefer, who will now be coaching in his fourth straight regional final after getting to the previous three with Mississippi State. — Creme
What they’re saying in San Antonio: After Sunday’s victory, Schaefer and the Longhorns laid it on thick about how insulted they were that anyone had suggested Maryland, the nation’s top scoring team, would score a lot of points on them. Apparently, that got Texas motivated enough to play exactly how Schaefer wanted his team to play. And in doing so, the Longhorns also got the Terps to play the way they wanted them to, which was contrary to what Maryland was best at all season.
The Terps move the ball well and dissect opposing defenses. Texas turned Sunday’s game into more of a series of one-on-one matchups, which was great strategy and execution. It was similar to what another defensive-minded team, Northwestern, did to Maryland in limiting the Terps to their previous season low: 62 points on Feb. 28. But Northwestern lost that game. Texas held the Terps to 61 and won.
“Defense is nothing more than teaching habits, y’all,” Schaefer said. “The only way you’re going to create a habit is to do it every day. We do some of the same drills every day. But that’s what it takes to be a great defensive team.
“These kids, they’re all in. They understand. That’s what I love about them. They are junkyard dogs. They are a bull locked in a china cabinet and they are coming out fighting.” — Voepel
Source: Read Full Article