AUSTIN, Texas—A barn-burner and a blowout took place at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday, as No. 7 Arizona State edged out No. 10 Nebraska, 73-62, while No. 2 Texas stampeded past No. 15 Maine, 83-54, in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s action:
Janay Morton provides boost off the bench
Nebraska’s starters were outmatched. All but three of Arizona State’s first-quarter points came from the paint. The Huskers needed someone who could keep the Sun Devils’ guards corralled outside the lane while also bringing a scoring punch.
They turned to Janay Morton. The redshirt senior guard delivered with a team-high 16 points and four rebounds. She shot 3-7 from deep and helped the offense open things up. Despite coming away with a loss, Morton was happy with how the team’s season turned out.
“As a red-shirt, sitting on the bench all last year, having to watch the team, I think it was a chance for me to be able to see what we needed as far as the following year,” Morton said. Then when I was finally able to play with my teammates, you know, just to make those types of things happen and being vocal, whether it be in practice or games and I think that helped a lot with this turnaround.”
Late third-quarter run hurts the Huskers
Nebraska had done a good job of overcoming Arizona State’s plus-22 rebound advantage, hanging with the Sun Devils for most of the night. The two teams were tied nine times as the lead went back and forth 10 times.
Eventually, the Huskers cracked. At the 5:03 mark in the third quarter, Nebraska sent Arizona State sophomore forward Jamie Ruden to the line. She made one of two free throws, cutting Nebraska’s lead to two points. The Huskers missed their next three, and junior center Charnea Johnson-Chapman grabbed the rebound and hit a jumpshot to tie the game, 38-38.
It was a the start of a 14-0 run for the Sun Devils.
“At halftime, I mean, really, I don’t think any of our starters would say, ‘Oh, I played well,’” Arizona State head coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “I think we just combined some really good defense with hitting shots.
The Sun Devils led by 11 at the end of the third and rode the momentum through the fourth quarter. They matched Nebraska’s 22 points and came away with the victory.
“I think it’s a big credit to our coaches,” Ruden said. “They were on us that we needed to really lock in. But also we put that pressure on ourselves, too.”
Longhorns box out
Texas used every inch of its reach advantage to build a 43-12 advantage on the boards. Maine never grabbed more than two rebounds in a single quarter.
Sophomore guard Blanca Millan secured the first board of the game for the Black Bears at the 2:17 mark in the first quarter. By the end of the quarter, sophomore forward Joyner Holmes had more rebounds (five) than Maine’s entire team (two).
Texas head coach Karen Aston emphasized to her team before the game how important winning the rebounding battle would be.
“That was one of the things that we actually had on the (team’s) board,” junior guard Lashann Higgs said. “It was like ‘rebound,’ with an exclamation mark, so we knew exactly what we tried to do was rebound.”
Ariel Atkins is made for March
Senior guard Ariel Atkins had much more success on offense. She hunted for open looks and knocked them down at every turn. She drained a triple from the right corner in Texas’ first possession of the game and never looked back.
Atkins finished the game with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-3 from deep. She was just as effective in everything else, racking up four rebounds, four assists and two steals. She hopes the performance carries over moving forward in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think it gives us a good amount of confidence,” Atkins said. “I think the confidence comes from knowing what we did. We focused on their tendencies and what they did well. And I think we actually used our preparation and listened to our coaches and we stuck with the game plan. I think that’s where the confidence comes from.”
So much for trimming the rotation
Aston knows she’ll need to cut down on her bench minutes at some point during the NCAA Tournament. But as long as her team can build a lead, as it did against Maine, she’s happy to give her starters a rest.
“We were able, luckily, in the Big 12 Tournament to play a lot of people because we did have a lead in both games where we were able to do that,” Aston said at Texas’ pregame press conference on Friday. “I mean, the rotation trims in tournament play. I think that’s a realistic statement. I think the bigger key is just getting everybody prepared, even if it’s a minute or two.”
Texas led 23-8 by the end of the first quarter, and Aston turned to her substitutes. The bench players combined for 128 minutes and 19 points. Each player was on the floor for at least 12 minutes.
“You just don’t ever know when your number’s going to get called in NCAA Tournament play,” Aston said after the game. “So I think it was very good for everyone to get some playing time and get their feet wet with the NCAA Tournament.”
Texas and Arizona State will square off in the second round of the tournament on Monday at the Erwin Center at 8 p.m. CT.