Women's college basketball winners and losers: Experience matters in March Madness; No. 1 seeds in flux

Months before the season, Duke released a passionate pep talk from women’s basketball head coach Kara Lawson that quickly spread beyond the sports world.

“It will never get easier,” Lawson told her team in July. “What happens is you handle hard better.”

Lawson’s comments are more focused on character development than in-game situations. But it still applies and will come into play for the best teams as they enter the NCAA tournament next week. It’s about to become really difficult to win when everything is on the line. Gaining that experience beforehand can’t be replicated now.

Take what Marquette head coach Megan Duffy said after the Big East semifinals about the 11-time national champions: “That was the UConn of March.” The Huskies know what it means to improve and handle hard better when it counts because they consistently play top-level talent in the months prior. You learn what it takes to handle difficult games and situations better.

There could be no better example of this contrast than the SEC tournament semifinal between Tennessee, a program that’s average opponent NET rank is second, and LSU, whose opponents’ average NET rank is 77th. The Lady Vols advanced past LSU by erasing a 17-point deficit and executing down the final minutes of a one-possession game.

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Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper and her group have experience in these close games. The bulk of the Vols’ résumé is against the NET top 100, going 16-11 with losses to some of the best in Ohio State (-12 margin), Indiana (-12), UCLA (-17), Virginia Tech (-3), Stanford (-7) and UConn (-17). They fared better against South Carolina than LSU did in the regular season.

Their record in the NET top 25 is 3-9 and that schedule dropped the looks of their overall record (23-11, 13-3 SEC). But it matters where you are in March, and they’re prepared. They also nabbed a signature win, and their first against an Associated Press-ranked team, with the victory over LSU.

Harper said her team was confident in the plays they were going to make down the stretch and determined to figure out how to earn the win.

Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper sits on the sideline during the game against LSU during the semifinals of the SEC tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina, on March 4, 2023. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper and her team have played against many of the nation's best teams this season. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

“Did it come from our experience? I think that has to be part of it,” Harper said. “It’s just part of our journey this year. What I said early on [was] I wanted this team to be the best possible basketball team we could be. That’s why we scheduled the way we did. We thought it would help us.”

The Tigers have not had the chance to learn how to handle hard better when their non-conference schedule doesn’t include any team projected in the NCAA tournament field. They are 2-2 against the NET top 25 — a great percentage, but a terrible total — and 16-2 versus NET top 100. That’s largely by playing some teams in the SEC.

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said the Tennessee zone affected the offense and they would have to further prepare for the NCAA tournament. She questioned if her team was fatigued multiple times during her four-minute postgame interview after the Tennessee loss.

Playing back-to-backs in conference tournaments is tough for any team. That’s particularly true for a team that isn’t facing some of the nation’s best teams week in and week out. It’s not only physical fatigue, it’s the mental fatigue of having to be locked in the entire time you’re on the court. One mistake against great teams can be make-or-break.

LSU and its players are in an unfortunate situation. The nonconference schedule was already set before Mulkey brought in a strong group of transfers led by forward Angel Reese. Whether that was smart or not knowing the increase in the transfer portal’s use and student-athletes being able to play immediately is another conversation. What matters is if LSU is ready for March in a landscape where more teams than ever appear capable of reaching the Final Four.

South Carolina won its seventh SEC tournament title in nine years by defeating Tennessee, 74-58, and preserved its undefeated record. Aliyah Boston was named MVP and guard Zia Cooke joined her on the all-tournament team. LSU’s Alexis Morris and the Tennessee tandem of Rickea Jackson and Jordan Horston filled out the five.

Loser: NCAA selection committee’s No. 1 seeds

South Carolina was the only No. 1 seed in the NCAA women’s basketball selection committee’s top 16 reveal to play in its conference title game Sunday.

Indiana, ranked No. 2 overall by the committee, gave up a 24-point lead — the largest in Big Ten tournament history — to Ohio State in the semifinals Saturday. Stanford was upset by UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinals Friday night. And Utah didn’t even make it that far.

The Utes were stunned by Washington State in the Pac-12 semifinals on Thursday. The No. 7-seeded Cougars went on to win their first conference championship, 65-61, over No. 5 seed UCLA in their first appearance. It is the first championship for any Washington State sport, men or women, in 21 years and the first-ever women’s title.

The skid of teams at the top can be extended on down. Maryland, which was moved up by ESPN and Washington Post bracketologists to the final No. 1 seed after Utah’s loss, fell to Iowa in the other Big Ten semifinal. LSU, a squad that some believed could move onto the 1-seed line, couldn’t finish against Tennessee in the SEC semifinals.

Virginia Tech and UConn were the only 2-seeds playing in their title game. The only other team in the top 16 in its title game was Iowa, which was last ranked ninth overall on the 3-seed line in South Carolina’s region.

The chaos is making the committee members’ lives difficult ahead of Selection Sunday. But it’s heightened the excitement for March Madness and underscoring the more balanced play we’re seeing in the women’s game.

Ohio State's Taylor Mikesell dribbles the ball against Indiana's Chloe Moore-McNeil during the Big Ten tournament semifinals at Target Center in Minneapolis on March 4, 2023. (Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)
Ohio State's Taylor Mikesell dribbles the ball against Indiana's Chloe Moore-McNeil during the Big Ten tournament semifinals at Target Center in Minneapolis on March 4, 2023. (Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

Winner: ACC tourney MVP Georgia Amoore

Virginia Tech is an ACC tournament champion for the first time in program history and it’s due in large part to junior guard Georgia Amoore.

Amoore took over in the 75-67 win against the ACC’s No. 3 seed, Louisville, on Sunday. She had 25 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists for No. 4 seed Virginia Tech.

Amoore was named ACC tournament MVP, averaging 21.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists over three games. She was 42.5% from the floor, including 48.3% from 3. Her 14 total 3-pointers are an ACC tournament record.

Joining her on the ACC all-tournament first team: Elizabeth Kitley (VT), Hailey Van Lith (Louisville), Mykasa Robinson (Louisville) and Chrislyn Carr (Louisville). On the second team: Sonia Citron (Notre Dame), Jewel Spear (Wake Forest), Taylor Soule (VT), Amari Robinson (Clemson) and Olivia Cochran (Louisville).

It is the first conference title for the Hokies since they won the A10 in 1998. Virginia Tech is in line for the final No. 1 seed vacated by Utah and again by Maryland, according to experts’ analysis in the time since the selection committee’s final top 16 reveal.

Notre Dame, the regular season champion, was without point guard Olivia Miles, who suffered a knee injury in the regular season finale. The Irish gutted out a big win against reigning champion NC State, but couldn’t do the same against Louisville in the quarterfinal. No. 2 Duke’s offense managed a mere 81 points over its two games.

Winner: Billikens head coach Rebecca Tillett

Saint Louis will make its first NCAA tournament appearance this month as the Atlantic 10 tournament champions. The No. 3-seeded Billikens (17-17, 10-6) ousted No. 1 seed Massachusetts (26-6, 14-2) 91-85 in overtime.

UMass sent it to extra minutes on a buzzer-beating 3 by Sydney Taylor (assisted by Destiney Philoxy), but the Billikens quickly built up a 15-9 overtime margin. Julia Martinez notched a triple-double with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. Kyla McMakin led all scorers with 27 points, including 7-of-8 at the free-throw line.

The tournament berth is the first for Saint Louis, but the second for head coach Rebecca Tillett. Tillett, who came up coaching in Virginia high schools through the 2000s, led Longwood to the Big South championship title last year. She is now the second head coach in Division I history to win two different auto bids in different leagues in consecutive seasons, per ESPN Stats and Information.

The other is Lisa Bluder, who did it with Drake in the Mountain Valley Conference in 2000 and with Iowa in the Big Ten in 2001.

Tillett’s Longwood team defeated Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four for its first NCAA tournament victory in program history. The Lancers lost to NC State in the first round.

UMass dropped to “first four out” in Charlie Creme’s ESPN bracketology. They had the automatic bid for the conference in previous iterations of the bracket.

Winner: Health reports for UConn, Ohio State

Though UConn and head coach Geno Auriemma never pinpointed a potential return for Azzi Fudd, there was optimism in Storrs that she would, in fact, return this season.

“Azzi and Paige are standing outside and I said, ‘Paige, you playing in March?’ She goes, ‘Yup,’ ” Auriemma told reporters following the loss to South Carolina a month ago. “And I said, ‘How about you, Azzi?’ And she said, ‘A lot sooner than that hopefully.’ I think Azzi was being truthful. Paige was lying her ass off.”

The hopeful part didn’t work out, but Fudd returned for the Huskies’ first game of March, their Big East tournament opener, and scored 10 points, including two 3s, with 4 assists in 16 minutes.

The sophomore guard was a National Player of the Year contender through the first weeks of the season until initially injuring her right knee in December. Her availability and health completely changes UConn’s trajectory through March. The Huskies will play No. 2 Villanova in the Big East championship game on Monday (7 p.m. ET on FS1).

Ohio State, a top-five team in the first weeks of the Associated Press polls, also received a star back for the tournament run in guard Jacy Sheldon. The 5-foot-10 senior guard led OSU with 19.8 points a game shooting 50.4% last season, but played in only five games before being sidelined with a lower leg injury.

Her 3-pointer with 1:21 left in the Big Ten quarterfinal broke a 76-76 tie to overcome Michigan and she scored 12 points in 15 minutes for the Buckeyes’ 24-point comeback to bounce Indiana in the semi.

A healthy Buckeye squad could be dangerous in the tournament, even given how Iowa absolutely crushed them in the championship game on Sunday.

Loser: Health report for Notre Dame

Citron did all she could and Maddy Westbeld chipped in to lift Notre Dame over NC State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. But the group ran into Virginia Tech, a team akin to an avalanche barrelling toward the NCAA tournament in a deep valley, and the loss of Miles showed.

Miles was essentially ruled out for the weekend by head coach Niele Ivey ahead of the tournament after the star point guard injured her right knee early in the season finale against Duke. It was a huge hit after the Fighting Irish were already without graduate guard Dara Mabrey, who injured her ACL in January. It left Ivey with a forward-heavy rotation.

Miles was on the sideline without crutches, but the way she was seen stiffly walking on her leg doesn’t look promising. There are about two weeks for Miles to rest and rehab in preparation for the tournament. Her health will be the X-factor. Without her, Notre Dame isn’t likely to go far.

Winner: Iowa’s overshadowed trio

Caitlin Clark is a generational player who has transcended college basketball, both men’s and women’s. Clark was unworldly in the Hawkeyes’ 105-72 demolition of Ohio State for a second consecutive Big Ten championship title Sunday night.

She exited with 30 points, 17 assists and 10 rebounds for the 10th triple-double of her career, moving her into second behind Sabrina Ionescu’s 26. She is the first player in Division I history with such a line and the only player to have three 30-point triple-doubles.

Clark, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, deserves every accolade and highlight package as does her law firm mate Monika Czinano. The rest of the Iowa’s starting five, as well as early players off the bench, also deserve credit for Iowa’s Big Ten championship win and the Hawkeyes’ chances in March.

McKenna Warnock (21 points, 3-of-4 on 3s, eight rebounds vs. Maryland), Kate Martin (19 points on 6-of-9 shooting and 3-of-5 3s in the final against Indiana) and Gabbie Marshall (24-of-44 on 3s since Feb. 5, including 13-of-21 during the tournament) have stepped up their performances. And Hannah Stuelke (averages 6.8 points in 13.3 minutes and a top-50 ranked 59.9 FG%) has been phenomenal as a freshman big off the bench.

Czinano, Marshall, Diamond Miller (Maryland), Cotie McMahon (Ohio State) and Taylor Thierry (Ohio State) completed the all-tournament team.

What to watch this week

Sun Belt championship: Texas State (23-8, 13-5) vs. James Madison (25-7, 13-5), 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU
Big East championship: No. 7 UConn (28-5, 18-2) vs. No. 10 Villanova (28-5, 17-3), 7 p.m. ET on FS1
Tournaments tipping off: AAC, Southland, WAC

Horizon League final, noon ET on ESPNU
Summit League final, 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU
West Coast final, 4 p.m. ET on ESPNU
Tournaments tipping off: Big West, MAAC

Big Sky final, 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU
Mountain West final, 10 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
Tournaments tipping off: C-USA, CAA, MEAC

Southland final, 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU
American Athletic final, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU
Tournaments tipping off: Big 12, MVC

America East final: Albany (22-10, 14-2) vs. Vermont (24-6, 14-2), 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU

ASUN final, TBD, ESPN+
MAC final, 11 a.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
SWAC final, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+
MAAC final, 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU
MEAC final, 4 p.m. ET on ESPN+
Ivy League final, 5 p.m. ET on ESPN+
C-USA final, 5:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
Big West final, 6 p.m. ET on ESPN+
WAC tournament final, 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+

Patriot League final, noon ET on CBS Sports Network
Northeast final, noon ET on ESPNU
CAA final, 2 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
MVC final, 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU
Big 12 final, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Selection Sunday show, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN

AP Top 25 Poll (as of March 6)

  1. South Carolina (32-0)

  2. Iowa (26-6)

  3. Indiana (27-3)

  4. Virginia Tech (27-4)

  5. Stanford (28-5)

  6. Maryland (25-6)

  7. UConn (28-5)

  8. Utah (25-4)

  9. LSU (28-2)

  10. Villanova (28-5)

  11. Notre Dame (25-5)

  12. Ohio State (25-7)

  13. Duke (25-6)

  14. Oklahoma (24-5)

  15. Texas (23-8)

  16. Gonzaga (27-3)

  17. UCLA (25-9)

  18. Michigan (22-9)

  19. North Carolina (21-10)

  20. Colorado (23-8)

  21. UNLV (28-2)

  22. Washington State (23-10)

  23. Tennessee (23-11)

  24. Arizona (21-9)

  25. Middle Tennessee (25-4)

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