While no exit from the tournament is a fun one, Stephen F. Austin's leave on Day 1 was excruciatingly heartbreaking.
The Ladyjacks were vying for their first tournament win since 2000 and appeared poised to do it. After putting No. 5 Georgia Tech on the ropes, they were 20 solid minutes from advancing.
Then it was six minutes from moving on if they could just hold a six-point cushion. When the final possession of regulation was fruitless, the Ladyjacks had five more minutes. And it still wasn't enough.
It all came down to the final second, three rebounds, three shots and the final one that fell a second too late. The 5 vs. 12 matchup in the Hemisfair Region was the most exciting of the first day of NCAA women's basketball action from the San Antonio area. Georgia Tech erased a 17-point halftime deficit with a 19-5 third-quarter run and free throws to tie it in the final minute. It was the first tie since they traded buckets to open the game and the Yellowjackets held on, 54-52.
Top seeds Baylor, UConn cruise
There were little hiccups for No. 1 seed UConn and No. 2 Baylor in the River Walk Region. The two top seeds are on a collision course and dropped triple-digits on their opponents.
Connecticut did it without head coach Geno Auriemma, who will also miss the second round while quarantining at home following a positive COVID-19 test. Assistant coach Chris Dailey is 11-0 all-time as the interim coach after a 102-59 victory against No. 16 High Point.
Freshman Paige Bueckers scored 24 points in her first NCAA tournament. It was the debut everyone was waiting for and she didn't disappoint. The national freshman of the year contender was 9-for-13 from the floor and was one rebound away from a double-double. It is believed to be the most points a Huskies freshman has scored in a tournament debut. She added six assists, four steals and two blocks.
— NCAA Women’s Basketball (@ncaawbb) March 22, 2021
Aaliyah Edwards, another of the team's seven freshmen, came off the bench to score 17 on 8-for-12 shooting with 12 rebounds. It put anyone who wasn't on notice that this Huskies squad will be dangerous for years to come.
Baylor played in the late afternoon slate and looked as terrifying to match up against as ever. The Bears cruised into the next round with a 101-52 win against No. 15 Jackson State as NaLyssa Smith was 8-for-9 from the floor for 18 points and 10 rebounds. She had three steals, two assists and a block. Baylor takes on Virginia Tech in the next round.
Caitlin Clark shines in behind-the-back style
The 2021 tournament tipped off with all eyes on Caitlin Clark. The Iowa freshman, who WNBA superstar Sue Bird calls the most exciting in the game, pulled up for shots with ease no matter the distance. Her dimes didn't disappoint, either.
— NCAA Women’s Basketball (@ncaawbb) March 21, 2021
Clark neared triple-double territory with 23 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals in an 87-72 win against 12-seed Central Michigan. She had 15 points by the 8-minute mark of the second quarter and scored or assisted on 27 of fifth-seeded Iowa's 48 first-half points.
Clark came into the tournament averaging a Division I-leading 26.7 points per game but has received less national attention than Bueckers. Many felt Clark was snubbed by missing the first-team All-American list and worry she's overlooked for national freshman of the year honors.
Her flashy, confident, no-look play has Iowa into a second-round matchup with No. 4 seed Kentucky and national player of the year contender Rhyne Howard. The winner of Tuesday's game will move on and likely face No. 1 seed UConn and Bueckers.
In-state rivals give top seeds a scare
No. 1 seed N.C. State and No. 3 seed Tennessee each endured scares from regional rivals on the first day. Both pulled away in the second half to prevail.
Tennessee went into halftime tied with No. 14 Middle Tennessee, 39-39, and looked in danger of the day's first major upset. Instead the backcourt of Rennia Davis and Rae Burrell combined for 44 points and became the first Lady Vols teammates since 2007 to score at least 20 points each. Tennessee controlled the paint and outrebounded the Raiders, 56-21, to win, 87-62.
They face Michigan and dangerous inside scorer Naz Hillmon in the second round. Hillmon got hers with 14 points and 13 rebounds, but did not pace the Wolverines this time around. Instead it was Leigha Brown who had a game-high 28 points against Florida Gulf Coast.
No. 1 seed N.C. State was in danger early against N.C. AT&T, the 16 seed. North Carolina A&T couldn't miss if it tried in the early going and stayed in the contest until a 13-0 Wolfpack run closed the half. N.C. State went into halftime with a 44-37 lead it didn't relinquish. The Wolfpack went on to win, 79-58.
The Aggies shot 16-for-28 (57.1 percent) in the first half and made half of their six 3-point attempts. They made only eight buckets total in the second half on the same amount of attempts. It was a struggle in the paint as they were doubled up there.
Emily Engstler lifts Syracuse in revenge game
Things looked different this time around with No. 8 Syracuse meeting No. 9 South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits upset Syracuse two years ago, preventing the promising top-seeded team from reaching the Sweet 16.
Not this time around. The Orange advanced behind a 72-55 victory that was closer than it seemed until the fourth quarter. And it has a lot to do with junior guard Emily Engstler. She played limited minutes in the 2019 tournament as a freshman behind such senior stars as Tiana Mangakahia, who is making her final tournament run this year.
As a sophomore Engstler was averaging 30 minutes a game but couldn't break into double-digit scoring. When the 2020 tournament was canceled she returned home to Roosevelt Island and dove into a drastically different offseason workout regime than her previous "chilling" one.
She lost nearly 40 pounds between March and her return to Syracuse in July. It's showed all season in her quickness and ability to play both ends of the court at a high level. And it earned her co-ACC Sixth Woman of the Year honors.
Her 18-point, 12-rebound double-double led the Orange along with a team-high six steals and four blocks. The team had a collective 14 blocks with six from freshman center Kamilla Cardoso.
Engstler opened the determining fourth quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers. She added a free throw and another 3-pointer, her fourth of eight attempts, in the final frame.
Syracuse's reward for the win is No. 1 seed UConn. The Huskies are a tough group and the Orange will need everyone to complete the massive upset.