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It fell into place the way basketball fans hoped it would. No. 5 Iowa and No. 1 Connecticut each dominated the competition in the second round and will face off in the Sweet 16 this weekend.
The game will be the first collegiate meeting between friends and freshmen sensations Caitlin Clark of Iowa and Paige Bueckers of UConn. They are two of the game's biggest stars and will preview the seasons to come for both young teams they lead.
"I love Caitlin. I love her game. We're really big fans of each other and I'm excited to play that game," Bueckers succinctly told ESPN's Holly Rowe after UConn's 83-47 win against No. 8 Syracuse late Tuesday night.
Behind-the-back passes, pull-up jumpers from range, vision that feels unreal. It will all be on display from both players in the River Walk region matchup. Though Bueckers receives most of the nation's attention and accolades, Clark shares similar talent. And a similar team outlook.
"I think me and Paige would give you the same answer: It's not Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers; it's Iowa vs. UConn," Clark said after Iowa's afternoon win. "Going up against her would obviously be a great opportunity. Obviously a good friend of mine. A tremendous player. But we would both say, we're not going to win it alone, no matter who wins that game."
Clark, ranked fourth in the 2020 recruiting class by ESPN's HoopGurlz, fulfilled her half of the deal with a stunning showcase against No. 4 Kentucky. She had one more bucket in the first half than the Wildcats had as a team and went on to score a tournament-high 35 points. Through her first two tournament games she's scored 58 points on 56.8% shooting overall and a 9-for-20 mark from 3-point range with 14 rebounds and 13 assists.
Bueckers, the No. 1 recruit, and the Huskies found their groove later and more ferociously on Tuesday. Syracuse's defense proved problematic in the first quarter, but UConn converted turnovers and missed layups into an insurmountable lead. The Naismith Player of the Year finalist put up a team-high 20 points with five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
She set the record for most points in a UConn players' tournament debut with 20 against High Point. In her two games she has a stat line of 44 points on 53.9 percent shooting overall and is 2-for-6 from 3-point range. It's filled out with 14 rebounds, 10 assists and seven steals.
The duo won the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup together and were named the Gatorade Player of the Year in their respective states (Minnesota for Bueckers, Iowa for Clark). They've each lived up to the hype as college freshmen and March stars so far. It's not inconceivable to see the points guards drafted at the top of the same WNBA draft and face off for the next decade.
The Sweet 16 matchup isn't pitting the two together in a "which player is better?" declaration. It's the future of the game.
Was Big Ten underrated in seedings?
Every week this season the Big Ten conference put out a handy "Basketball Central" release chock full of accolades, tip times, matchup history and statistics. And just about every week it included a line about the Big Ten leading all Division I conferences in scoring. As a whole the conference led others in field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage and assists.
Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Rutgers all were among the top 25 scoring offenses in the country the final weeks of the regular season. But when the first top 16 tournament team reveals went out and the tourney bracket was finalized there were questions about those same teams being ranked too low.
Iowa and Michigan's performances in the second round against SEC foes indicates the Big Ten was, in fact, under seeded. Unlike on the men's side, these Big Ten teams really were that good to begin with and the SEC competition might not have been.
No. 5 seed Iowa took it to No. 4 seed Kentucky early in the River Walk region. Iowa finished sixth in the Big Ten at 11-8 in conference play while Kentucky was fifth in the SEC at 9-6.
It was arguably the most fair matchup comparison of the two conferences. The Wildcats looked a mess while Iowa couldn't miss in a frenetically paced first half. The Hawkeyes nearly reached their 86.6 points per game average, which ranks second in the nation behind Maryland (91.5).
No. 6 Michigan came after No. 3 Tennessee in the same region and dominated throughout in a 70-55 win that was even farther away than the 15-point margin indicates. The Wolverines, who finished fourth (9-4) in conference play, won both of their tournament games without a major offensive outing from forward Naz Hillmon. And Tennessee, which finished third (9-4), couldn't get it going offensively from their talented backcourt.
Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico put the wins, specifically the Wolverines, into a larger perspective.
"It’s great for our university. It’s great for the state of Michigan," she said in post-game. "It’s great for the rest of the country to see that Michigan is not only a football and men’s basketball school, but it’s also a women’s basketball school."
No. 2 Maryland, No. 4 Indiana and No. 7 Northwestern are all in action on Wednesday.
Other notes from Day 3
The Syracuse loss marked the end of an incredible collegiate career for Tiana Mangakahia. She's atop the Orange record books for assists and inspired the city and nation with her breast cancer fight last season. Mangakahia said she will declare for the WNBA draft.
Michigan is in the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history and Tennessee is out of the regional round for only the fifth time in the tournament's 39-year history.
Georgia Tech reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in program history, joining a trip in 2012. Hours before the Yellowjackets second-round game head coach Nell Fortner released a statement calling out the NCAA for viewing women's basketball "as an afterthought." Fortner expounded on it in the post-game media availability.
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) March 23, 2021
No. 1 seeds South Carolina and Baylor cruised again in the second round. South Carolina went up early on No. 8 Oregon State to ride out a 59-42 victory. Baylor crushed No. 7 Virginia Tech, 90-48, in the River Walk. Head coach Kim Mulkey said it was "as impressive as a defense as I've ever put on the floor in an NCAA tournament game, maybe in all of my coaching." So that's fun for everyone else. The Bears play Michigan next.
No. 1 overall seed Stanford was tested early by Oklahoma State and shot block specialist Natasha Mack. The Cardinal pulled away to advance with a 73-62 win. Haley Jones, Cameron Brink, Kiana Williams and Anna Wilson, who is the younger sister of NFL quarterback Russell Wilson, all reached double digits. Mack completed her season with a 13-point, 11-rebound double-double.
The final No. 1 seed in action, the Mercado region's North Carolina State, had a tougher time. No. 8 seed South Florida held a one-point lead at halftime with sharp shooting from deep. The Wolfpack won, 79-67.
Day 4 TV schedule
All times ET. (Region)
1 p.m.: No. 7 Alabama vs No. 2 Maryland, ESPN2 (Hemisfair)
3 p.m.: No. 6 Oregon vs No. 3 Georgia, ESPN2 (Alamo)
3 p.m.: No. 13 Wright State vs No. 5 Missouri St, ESPNU (Alamo)
5 p.m.: No. 12 Belmont vs. No. 4 Indiana, ESPNU (Mercado)
5 p.m.: No. 7 Northwestern vs. No. 2 Louisville, ESPN2 (Alamo)
7 p.m.: No. 11 BYU vs. No. 3 Arizona, ESPNU (Mercado)
7 p.m.: No. 7 Iowa State vs. No. 2 Texas A&M, ESPN2 (Mercado)
9 p.m.: No. 6 Texas vs. No. 3 UCLA, ESPN2 (Hemisfair)
What to watch in second round
Maryland, Louisville and Arizona all cruised into the second round and after the top seeds won big Tuesday it will be notable if they can do the same. The Terrapins were a bucket away from hitting triple digits.
Oregon showed up strong in the Ducks win over South Dakota in the first round. They went up, 25-8, in the first quarter on 77 percent shooting and kept South Dakota to one point on a free throw in the final 30 seconds of the second quarter. Georgia will be a different matter entirely. The Bulldogs are gritty and relied on a strong defense through the back half of the season.
Texas A&M is on upset watch after narrowly being on the wrong side of history in the first round.
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