Albany regional features a bit of everything

Here we are in the round of 16, and the Albany Regional is comprised of one team with double upsets, a team with a technical upset, and the top two teams in the bracket. Or in other words, the number one seed, the defending champions, the upstarts, and Duke.

Buffalo, the surprising 11-seed, got here by thrashing No. 6 South Florida in the first round, 102-79, and then doing it again to No. 3 Florida State, 96-65.

No. 5 Duke beat No. 12 Belmont comfortably in round one, then dominated No. 4 Georgia in the second round 66-40, for the technical upset, though the teams were so closely matched that many didn’t consider it a true upending.

No. 1 UConn advanced to its 25th consecutive Sweet 16 with a ridiculous 140-52 win over St.Francis (Pa.) and an ordinary (for the Huskies) 71-46 victory over its state-mate Quinnipiac.

No. 2 South Carolina, the reigning National Champion, has struggled. They beat No. 15 North Carolina A&T, 63-52, but were outscored in the second half. Then they struggled against No. 10 Virginia, needing 25 points and 11 rebounds from A’ja Wilson to eke out a 10-point victory, 66-56.

Here’s a quick look at the matchups, and what the teams need to do and not do to move on to the Elite Eight.

Don’t be shocked if Buffalo pulls yet another upset, but don’t expect it to happen. The odds are that the top seeds will hold, and UConn will play South Carolina in Monday’s Elite Eight.

A'ja Wilson has carried South Carolina this season. AP stock photo.
A’ja Wilson has carried South Carolina this season. AP stock photo.

No. 2 South Carolina (28-6)  vs. No. 11 Buffalo (29-5) – 11:30 a.m. EDT (ESPN)

South Carolina leans so heavily on senior center A’ja Wilson that when she shoots just 43 percent in two games, her team is at risk of losing to much lower-seeded opponents. Her season average shooting is nearly 55 percent. It took all of Wilson’s 44 points and 27 rebounds to overcome the turnovers and defensive lapses that turned the Gamecock’s first two tournament games into contests.

Freshman guard Bianca Jackson is the other South Carolina player who has stood out during the opening rounds, scoring 29 points on 11-12 shooting, including five three-pointers. Sophomore point guard Tyasha Harris has looked overwhelmed or lost at times even though she played significant minutes as a freshman in the Gamecock’s championship run last year. She will have to regain her confidence for South Carolina to advance.

Against an aggressive team like Buffalo, the Gamecocks will need to be much more disciplined, protective of the ball, and flexible offensively if they are to avoid a huge upset.

Buffalo refuses to be labelled a Cinderella, or anything else. They simply play what they call “quirky, Buffalo ball.” This is aggressive, full-tilt basketball, reflective of their coach, Felisha Legette-Jack. The formula for mid-major upsets on both the women’s and men’s tournaments is: play defense; make a bunch of threes. Buffalo can do both: they held Florida State to 38 percent shooting, and hit 14-27 threes against USF.

But this Buffalo team does much more. Their winning margin in the two upset victories has come from driving to the hoop, getting fouled, and making their free throws. In the first two rounds, the Bulls shot a stunning 49-54 (.907) from the free-throw line, fully 26 percent of their points. At the same time, they shot just over 50 percent from the field.

Getting to the free throw line has another advantage for the Bulls: they have caused three players to foul out against them.

Junior guard Cierra Dillard has been outstanding during the tournament, scoring 36 against USF and another 22 against FSU, sinking more than half her shots. Senior Stephanie Reid, one of four Australians on the team, has 37 points in the two games. More impressive is that all five starters scored in double figures in the second round against FSU.

South Carolina should win this game on experience and talent. But Buffalo has ignored the need for the first of these, and seems to have plenty of the second. If the Gamecocks cannot return to the winning formula of the mid-season, then A’ja Wilson will have to have a monster game to save them from being upset.

Katie Lou Samuelson, Kia Nurse and Napheesa Collier on defense. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Katie Lou Samuelson, Kia Nurse and Napheesa Collier on defense. Photo by Stephen Slade.

No. 1 UConn (34-0) vs. No. 5 Duke (24-8)– 1:30 p.m. (or so) (ESPN)

Duke rises or falls on the play of Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell. The tournament is usually about guard play, and these two are both fifth-year seniors, with the ability to defend, score and control the pace of play. UConn coach Geno Auriemma conceded that “it’s going to be a challenge for us to contain both of them, and we’re going to have to just pick one of them.”

Brown averages 19.7 points per game, while Greenwell adds 14.2 points and 6.5 rebounds. Both shoot the three well and often, at nearly 40 percent between them. (Haley Gorecki also shoots over 42 percent from beyond the arc.)

During the season, controlling Brown or Greenwell would be enough to win, and UConn certainly has the defense to do that. But Duke has a X-factor in the Tournament in 6-2 freshman Leaonna Odom, who has scored 25 and 16 points in two games after a season average of just nine.

Turnovers have been costly to the Blue Devils, though obviously not fatal so far. But those turnovers worry coach Joanne P. McCallie, who understands how well UConn exploits offensive errors.

“The live ball turnover is everything in this tournament,” she said earlier this week. “Twenty-three turnovers against Georgia . . . just too much.”

The keys to the game for Duke will be controlling those turnovers, improving their baseline shooting, and mixing up defenses to keep UConn as much off balance as possible. And, of course, scoring a lot of points. They will need Odom to continue on her tear if they are to accomplish that.

UConn is the consensus best team in the country, the only undefeated team in basketball, the relentless defensive machine, the one whose seniors have lost two games in their careers, the one that laid 140 points on St. Francis without playing a starter more than 29 minutes.

But UConn is not healthy. Senior Gabby Williams is their most active defender, (though Kia Nurse usually draws the opponent’s best player). The offense, when clicking at its best, runs through her. Williams can be the most disruptive player in women’s basketball, but she has a chronic and painful hip injury, and she has suffered frequently from migraine headaches. I have no confirmation of this, but I infer from Williams sub-par performance in the second round that she may have had both issues flaring up during that game. If Williams is seriously hampered by one or both maladies, the Huskies could be in trouble.

Furthermore, sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield battling both  shin-splints and an ankle injury. She has seemed a step slower on defense recently, and her scoring has been limited and ineffective.

UConn can probably defeat Duke without top performances by these two injured players. But getting to the Final Four will be much more difficult if they are not playing at full speed on Monday.

None of which is to suggest that the Huskies are in deep trouble. Junior forward Napheesa Collier has returned to her best form from last season, scoring 48 points on 20-24 shooting in the tournament. Katie Lou Samuelson has been a consistent force all season in all facets of the game. The team has shot .629 from the field and 14-31 (.451) from beyond the arc in the first two games.

UConn’s defense remains the foundation of their success. Their opponents shot just 26 percent in the two games, though neither turned the ball over very often.

They should prevail over Duke, but keep an eye on the play of Williams and Dangerfield. If they look full-speed, an eleventh consecutive Final Four is in sight. If not, Monday could be a disappointment for Husky fans.