Los Angeles – For the first three quarters of Saturday’s NCAA Tournament opener, 12th-seeded Penn dominated fifth-seed Texas A&M. They out shot them, 50 to 27 percent, played with urgency and carried the momentum over an Aggie squad that sometimes looked lethargic.
But in the fourth quarter, the Aggies woke up and turned the 52-35 deficit they went in with into a 63-61 win – the largest comeback in NCAA Tournament history.
Khaalia Hillsman paced Texas A&M with a career-high 27 points and nine rebounds, while Danni Williams added 15 points, which included a clutch three-point shot with 36.2 seconds to go that gave the Aggies the momentum to close out the game.
They began their 25-1 run with 8:57 to play, keeping the Quakers from scoring a field goal. The Williams shot cut Penn’s lead to 59-58, and an ensuing Hillsman bucket gave Texas A&M their first lead since the 19.1 seconds in the first quarter. Jasmine Lumpkin then stole the ball, which resulted in two Williams free throws.
Anriel Howard had 16 rebounds for the Aggies, and Curtyce Knox’s eight assists made her the first player in both school and Southeastern Conference history to score more than 300 assists in a single season, with 303.
Sydney Stipanovich led the Quakers with 20 points, and Michelle Nwokedi added 15.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said the game hinged on momentum.
“Three quarters of the game, they outplayed us, I got out-coached, they wanted it more, they were cutting hard to the ball, they were making shots, you name it,” he said. “They probably deserved the game. But when you’re in the NCAA Tournament, you have to win a game like this along the way, to be able to get to that next level, to get that sense of urgency in your team.”
Blair said stops and starts have been the hallmark of what he termed a “reloading” season.
“We’ve had this problem all year, getting way behind, trying to run the perfect play instead of knowing how to play – and particularly on the defensive end,” he said. “They shut us out of our zone, our match up. We were doing a lousy job on switching, hedging and everything.”
“And give credit to them. That’s why they’re Penn. That’s why they’re so well-coached, and that is one of the best teams we have played this year, but when the momentum changes, and we were able to play defense without fouling in that fourth quarter and we made all the hustle plays.”
Hillsman, who scored 15 of her points in the final quarter, said that even she was struggling in the game.
“To be honest, in the fourth quarter, I was really just trying to have some pride in what we do,” Hillsman said. “We weren’t representing our school very well for about 30 minutes and then the last 10, we found something in us.”
That “something” was saving the game for Knox and fellow senior Taylor Cooper.
“I was trying to leave it all on the floor because I didn’t want ‘Tyce to go home. I wasn’t going to go home either,” Hillsman said.
“We talk a lot about ‘Tyce, but I don’t know if anybody really understands how much ‘Tyce means to us, so when we see her, when we see it in her eyes, like she doesn’t want to go home, that ignites all of us. We’re like, ‘’Tyce doesn’t want to go home, we aren’t going home.’ I mean ‘Tyce just means so much to us, and [Taylor Cooper]…..when we see our seniors like that, when they got that fire in their eyes, you see all that they’ve given to this program – how can we not go out there and give them everything we have? Because we don’t want them to go home; we don’t want their careers to end like that.”
Stipanovich credited the Aggies defensive intensity in the last period.
“I think in the first half we had a really good flowing offense, we were getting stops on defense, and we were making great transitions in the offensive end,” she said. “In the second half we have to give them credit, they upped their defense especially in the last eight minutes. The defense just got us.”
Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said it was one of the hardest losses he’d ever experienced.
“It is just a real difficult time right now,” McLaughlin said.
Texas A&M will face UCLA in the Tournament second round Monday at 7 p.m.
Los Angeles – The enduring image after UCLA’s last game – a Pac-12 Tournament semifinal loss to Oregon State – was of guards Jordin Canada and Kari Korver tearfully fielding questions in the post-game press conference.
A different Bruin team that took the court Saturday, in their NCAA Tournament first-round match up with Boise State. This group shut down their opponents with intimidating, lockdown defense, and something that has been missing: a balanced scoring attack.
Monique Billings led UCLA with 19 points, and Kennedy Burke and Nicole Kornet each added 14, with Burke also grabbing 10 rebounds. Canada had 15 points to go with 16 assists, which tied an 18-year-old school record. Just as significant were Korver’s nine points and Kelli Hayes’ eight. It was a multi-pronged effort that had been missing – especially as conference play wound down.
Billings, who has been the statistical leader for the team this season, with Canada, said getting everyone involved was a focal point in preparing for Tournament play.
“We as a team spoke about it,” Billings said. “It can’t just be me and Jordin (scoring), so the role players, key players need to step up. And I think that’s what did it today. It’s been an emphasis in our practices all week.”
UCLA also worked on elevating their defense, particularly in transition.
“All of our keys (to the game) were on defense, so it was a big focus for us just to be the aggressor and not let them have anything easy tonight,” Billings said.
The hosts started fast, and the Broncos didn’t score their first field goal until the 5:21 mark. The Bruins pushed the pace the rest of the way, outscoring their opponents in each quarter except the third, when each team had 20 points.
“We thought we could run on them and get some transition looks, but the physicality of play was a real adjustment for us, obviously,” Boise State coach Gordy Presnell said. “We didn’t adjust very well.”
Brooke Pahukoa and Riley Lupfer each had 13 points for the Broncos.
UCLA had 24 team assists, outscored Boise State in the paint, 36-17, and shot 58 percent on the game. But they were outrebounded by the visitors, 39-37. Bruins coach Cori Close said she appreciated her team’s energy, and said she knew they were going to step up after their conference tournament experience.
“I was really confident that it was going to change us, for the better, because I trust this team’s heart so much,” Close said. “They care deeply. They work really hard. They’re not afraid to be challenged.”
Close has challenged her athletes more of late – especially Canada and Billings. She has told the whole team to embrace game preparation and making a play for a teammate.
“I think the reality for us is that’s what we’ve been trying to do all year,” Close said. “We’re not changing now that the NCAA Tournament happens. It’s not based on (shooting percentage). It’s that we’re going to give everything we have in our preparation, and then we’re going to play selfless basketball and let the chips fall where they may.”
UCLA will face Texas A&M in second round action Monday at 7 p.m.
SEATTLE — For one quarter, the Montana State Bobcats matched the Washington Huskies basket for basket.
The Big Sky Conference champions traded scores with one of the best teams in the nation, and with a three-pointer from guard Delany Junkermier at the quarter horn, the Bobcats held a one-point advantage over the Huskies in their first round NCAA Tournament tilt at Alaska Airlines Arena.
“Every single time we had a breakdown, they made us pay,” said Washington head coach Mike Neighbors.
To start the second, Kelsey Plum hit two free throws on the first possession of the quarter, and the Huskies didn’t trail the rest of the night.
Despite a career-high 33 points from Peyton Ferris to lead all scorers, Plum’s 29 and Chantel Osahor’s nation-leading 28th double-double, with 16 points and 19 rebounds helped the Huskies easily overcome a sloppy first quarter in a 91-63 victory. Aarion McDonald and Natalie Romeo also finished in double figures for the Huskies, with 15 and 11 respectively.
Washington will play Oklahoma on Monday night with a Sweet 16 bid on the line.
“It is always hard to finish a season on this note, but at the same time we promised that we would give a great effort and we definitely left it all out there,” said Montana State head coach Tricia Binford.
Early on, neither team could get shots to fall, with both Montana State and Washington shooting under 35 percent after one quarter. But at least defensively, Binford was happy with the pressure the MSU defense was applying.
“It felt like we made them work for a lot of the shots that they got and the energy was fantastic,” Binford said. “Our effort was very solid.”
Forward Riley Nordgaard, who finished with 10 points, had another phrase for it.
“That was Bobcat basketball,” she said, “and things got away from us.”
While Washington began to pull away in the second, it was Ferris who single-handedly kept the Bobcats within striking distance.
The senior had all 10 of her team’s points in the quarter, as the Huskies took an 11-point lead into the half, after a 3-pointer from Plum with seconds remaining.
Though Neighbors said there was some rust early, the two-week lay-off from the team’s last game — a 70-69 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament — became a benefit as the game went on.
“We had to really fight to hang around in the first quarter and then it progressively started becoming an advantage to us that we were rested,” he said. “By halftime, it was a big part of it.”
Into the third quarter, the Bobcats stayed close, and trailed by just eight after a jumper from Oliana Squires with 5:27 to go. But a 12-2 UW run over the next three minutes effectively put the game on ice.
Washington outscored Montana State 28-16 in the fourth quarter, leading by as many as 31 in the final period.
“It was a great atmosphere and a really, really good basketball team,” Neighbors said. “We had to play very, very well to win because they were very, very well prepared and executed very well.”
Awaiting the Huskies on Monday night is Oklahoma, which beat the UW in close games both 2014 and 2015.
“They’re a very good team,” Plum said. “They’re moving well without the ball. They play together as a team. It’s not a one-man show out there. They all can shoot it They call can drive it. We have got to guard everybody.”
That game is set for a 6 p.m. PT tip-off on ESPN2.
With the win, Washington will face Oklahoma for the third-straight season. The two programs played a home-and-home series, with the Sooners winning both matchups, 90-80 in Norman in Nov. 2014, and 71-68 in Seattle in Dec. 2015 … With a 3-pointer in the first quarter, Natalie Romeo hit the 1,000-point mark for her career … After the team’s post-game press conference, Montana State head coach Tricia Binford hugged university president Waded Cruzado, who made the trip to see the team. Binford on the response from Bozeman: “Our fan base has been fantastic all season long and it is one of the things my family truly appreciates about Bozeman the most. It is why we love it at Montana State. We are family and our family is the entire community, the university, the athletic department, and to have that crowd there was very, very exciting.”
SEATTLE — For a few moments on Saturday night, you may have thought Gonzaga earned a top-four seed and home-court advantage, instead of playing 300-or so miles away in their first-round match up with Oklahoma.
The Seattle crowd was at its loudest after a three-pointer by Makenlee Williams brought the Bulldogs within five with just over six minutes to play, after trailing by as many as 15 in the third quarter.
A jumper from Jill Barta again brought Gonzaga within five, with 5:25 to go.
The margin wouldn’t get down to one possession.
Gonzaga scored just five points the rest of the game, as the Sooners advanced to play the winner of Washington/Montana State with a 75-62 victory at Alaska Airlines Arena. Oklahoma will play Washington on Monday night with a Sweet 16 bid on the line.
Oklahoma center Vionise Pierre-Louis set a career-high with eight blocks, and flirted with a triple-double with eight rebounds and 17 points, while guard Peyton Little had a game-high 18 points for the Sooners. Guard Laura Stockton had 13 points to lead the Bulldogs, followed by Barta’s 13, and senior Elle Tinkle’s 11.
The Sooners (23-9) came out firing from distance in the first quarter, making 6-of-their-first-7 attempts from 3-point range and at one-point had made seven consecutive baskets. They held a 13-point advantage after 10 minutes.
“After being off for two weeks, and the way we started in the first quarter — we shot it about as good as we could shoot,” Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale said.
During that hot start, the Sooners took full advantage of Gonzaga’s man defense. That wasn’t lost on Bulldogs head coach Lisa Fortier.
“They were driving and kicking, driving and kicking, and we weren’t able to keep them out of the middle to kick it up to their shooters,” she said.
That left Oklahoma with plenty of open looks.
“I was frustrated,” Stockton said, “because I feel like we were giving them those opportunities.”
Both teams went cold to start the second, with the Zags making just three field goals in the first five minutes, while Oklahoma scored just four points in the quarter’s first eight minutes.
That allowed Gonzaga to pull within seven with just over three minutes to go in the half, but 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions from guards Maddie Manning and Derica Wyatt got the lead back to 13 at the break.
Oklahoma got the lead to 15 in the opening moments of the third, but the Bulldogs shaved the deficit to single digits heading into the fourth.
On multiple occasions, Gonzaga pulled within two possessions, but get no closer in the game’s final minutes. Coale said she liked how her team “stayed in the possession we were in,” not just over the final quarter, but throughout the night.
For Pierre-Louis, the dwindling lead didn’t change how the team played.
“We didn’t let it scare us or speed us up at all,” she said. “We had a nice pace throughout the first half and when they started to run, it was because we had a lack of communication on our transition defense. But we didn’t let that frazzle us, and we just stuck with each other, and played for each other, then pulled it out.”
On the Gonzaga side, the frenetic pace of erasing the first quarter deficit may have shown up down the stretch.
“We had a lot of players with red faces on the bench,” Tinkle said. “It was tough, we were working hard to cut back into the lead. But if we have a better start, then we don’t necessarily have to do that, so we made it a lot more difficult on ourselves.”
Of all the moments at the finish, Coale said Gioya Carter’s three-point play with just over six minutes to play stands out.
“We had a lot of great plays, but that one stuck with me because we needed a basket so desperately,” Coale said.
Oklahoma outscored the Bulldogs 13-5 to the finish after Barta’s jumper pulled Gonzaga within five.
The Sooners will now play Washington on Monday at Alaska Airlines Arena, after the Huskies dispatched Montana State 91-63 to advance.
Oklahoma won the only other matchup between the two programs, a 72-68 victory in a preseason WNIT game in 2014 … The Bulldogs shot just 3-of-18 from 3-point range … Gonzaga returns three starters and 10 letter-winners next season … Oklahoma has now made the round of 32 three straight seasons … 12 of Peyton Little‘s 18 points came in the first quarter … The Sooners are now 16-3 all-time in NCAA opening round games …
Storrs, Conn. – Syracuse got off to a hot start in their NCAA Tournament opener and never looked back, handling Iowa State, 85-65.
Freshman Gabby Cooper set the pace for the Orange, hitting five three-pointers in the first 6:30 of the game as the team rushed out to a 22-6 lead. On the season, Cooper attempted a team-leading 263 threes, making just 70 (.289). In her last two games, however, she is now 14-31 (.451).
Cooper was sanguine about her shooting, saying that she knew things were working.
“When the first one went in. it felt natural. It was a good day,” she said with a smile. “A lot of my shots were actually wide open, so that made it easier.”
The Cyclones were shell-shocked by their opponent’s hot scoring and superior athleticism, and they shot a miserable 2-18 for the first quarter. They settled down at the break and began to claw their way back, as the lack of discipline inherent in Syracuse’s playing style slowed the scoring onslaught. At the half, however, they had cut the differential only by four, and the teams went into the locker room with Syracuse ahead by 21, 45-24.
The Orange play an aggressive, high-contact defense that is effective in part because officials are loath to call a foul on every possession. They press for forty minutes, and Iowa State did not respond well, failing to get the ball to the middle and getting trapped and turned over on the sidelines.
When the Cyclones began to break the press, however, Syracuse did not recover well, and frequently gave up a score. When the press works well, however, it is frustrating and even demoralizing to the opponent. In this contest, Syracuse scored 19 points off 18 Iowa State turnovers.
The Cyclones couldn’t handle the quickness of Syracuse on either end of the floor. Neither team shot very well in the second half, but to have a chance of victory, Iowa State needed to dominate a quarter as Syracuse had done in the first period. They shot 44 percent in the third quarter, but hit just 2-9 threes – usually a scoring staple for them. They managed too few stops, and put Syracuse on the line for six points. When the Cyclones managed to close the gap by only one point in the period, any chance of a come back was done.
With a 20-point lead, Syracuse uncharacteristically but sensibly extended their offensive possessions. Iowa State cooperated with that strategy by allowing offensive rebounds, or fouling late in the shot clock. It was amusing to watch Syracuse point guard Alexis Peterson push the ball over half court, remember they were using clock, and pull back, almost in frustration.
Iowa State actually outscored Syracuse for the final three quarters, but not by nearly enough to overcome their 11 percent shooting in the first, or Cooper’s career day from beyond the arc. The freshman finished with a career-high 24 points, all of them from downtown (8-15).
Brittney Sykes led the Orange with 28 points, and Peterson had 25. Along with Cooper, the trio scores all but eight of their team’s points – something they are unlikely to do against the UConn defense. But on this day, it was more than enough to move on to a Monday date against them, which will be a rematch of last year’s National Championship.
Iowa State had four players in double figures, but shot just 38 percent as a team, and only 30 percent from three-point range. Coach Bill Fennelly said Syracuse didn’t play like an eighth seed.
“I’d like to see how they came up with that,” Fennelly said of the Selection Committee.
While the UConn-Syracuse rematch will be the story of the week around the country, the reality is that the No. 9 seed out-played Syracuse for 30 of 40 minutes today, while UConn scored 116 points in their win. Monday’s game will, obviously, be a hard-fought, physical game, because the Orange are that kind of team. They are also the kind of athletic group that could give the Huskies fits, in large part because their outstanding guards may be able to get them in foul trouble.
Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman’s agreed that a win is possible, but he knows the upset will require a complete game.
“We need to get the ball in the basket so we can set up our pressure,” he said. “We need to progress through our sets and get the ball in the basket. If we can shoot forty percent & get into our pressure, that’s the key.”
“That’s who we are, we shoot the three & we press,” he continued. “We’ve got to scramble this game up and speed the game up and hit our shots.”
UConn knows this about Syracuse. They also know that the key to that team is still seniors Peterson and Sykes – not Cooper – no matter how hot her shooting. The Huskies have a much more active defense than Iowa State. And Syracuse has not beaten UConn since 1997. UConn has not lost a first or second round game since 1993. But Monday’s game should be fun.
Storrs, Conn. – Any competitive basketball player has to enter each game believing that a win is possible. Albany’s Cassandra Edwards said as much entering their first round contest against Connecticut, when she agreed that her approach was “Why not us?”
Everyone, of course, knew that was not going to happen. But for a short time on Saturday, Albany hung with the Huskies, in large part because UConn came out looking rusty and sloppy. They committed four early turnovers and missed several defensive rotations that gave the Great Danes four early open threes, but they made just one of them.
Nonetheless, the Huskies’ talent was too much, and Albany had no answer for their inside game.
The Danes are a talented team. When UConn gave them an open shot opportunity, they capitalized, shooting a very creditable 44 percent in the first quarter. Albany’s eight fouls were the major difference, as the hosts tallied 11 from the line and led 37-18 after ten minutes. The Huskies shot 66 percent from the field in the quarter.
Albany continued to run their system, which was organized and generally well-executed. Their problem was defending the Huskies, who shot 58 percent for the half, including 15 of 18 free throws to go to the locker room with a 58-32 lead.
There was nothing slow or sloppy about UConn’s start to the second half. In just a minute and ten seconds Kia Nurse hit a three, the Huskies scored on two fast-break layups off Albany misses, and Katie Lou Samuelson stole an inbounds pass and scored. Nine points in a flash, forcing a timeout by Albany Coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee. They regrouped and continued to play a possession at the time.
Down 36, Imani Tate blocked a Napheesa Collier attempt and chest-bumped her teammates. That reaction typified the Albany team approach: whatever the score, they are going to play hard, and enjoy their successes. Tate finished with 19 points, though it required 24 shot attempts (.250). Jessica Fequiere finished with a much more efficient 16 (6-11, .550).
UConn continued to be UConn. The team shot 86 percent in the fourth quarter, with the starters sitting for the final five minutes. Crystal Dangerfield hit four of five threes in the second half, a great sign going into more competitive games. Connecticut hit 17-20 free throws, continuing a pattern that ranked them seventh in the nation,
The final score: 116-55. The Huskies 116 points tied a NCAA first round record. UConn shot 62.3 percent, 50 percent (13-26) from three-point range. Five Huskies scored in double figures. Three scored twenty or more (Collier 24, Nurse 24, Williams 20).