Albany regional features the best of the East and West

The NCAA Tournament’s Albany regional kicks off with two East coast teams looking to return to the Final Four for a second straight year, and two up-and-coming West coast teams gunning for upsets.

Louisville has played like a No. 1 seed in the first two rounds, dominating its opponents. The other three teams have had to battle to get here. Although Connecticut registered a blowout and a comfortable 12-point victory, the team seemed out of sync.

Oregon State had to scrap to make overtime in their first round game, and were in jeopardy in the final minute of the second round.

UCLA had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat No. 3 Maryland, but did so with solid defense and great rebounding.

Napheesa Collier. Stephen Slade photo.
Napheesa Collier. Stephen Slade photo.

No. 2 Connecticut Huskies

AAC Champion: 33-2; 16-0 AAC

25th NCAA tournament appearance, including 11 straight Final Fours.

Defeated No. 15 Towson, 110-61, No. 10 Buffalo, 82-71.

Head coach: Geno Auriemma, 36th season

Top performers:

Senior F (6-2) Napheesa Collier, 21.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg

Senior G/F (6-4) Katie Lou Samuelson, 18.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg

Junior PG (5-7) Crystal Dangerfield, 13.8 ppg, 5.97 apg

This is not your big sister’s Husky team. Returning to Albany chastened after a scare in the second round, Connecticut will need to regroup if they are to have a chance to reach a twelfth consecutive Final Four.

Napheesa Collier has been superb all season, averaging a double-double on the year, but her talented teammates have taken turns, usually two at a time, at being quite ordinary. Over the last five games, Collier has averaged 27 points and 13.8 rebounds, shooting 68 percent during that stretch.

The supporting cast has been more streaky. Once the leading three-point shooting team in the nation, the Huskies have dropped to 28th. Although they still have four starters shooting better than .360 from downtown, each game is either all or nearly nothing for this team.

Katie Lou Samuelson has apparently recovered fully from the back problems that caused her to miss the entire AAC tournament, and she looked mobile against Buffalo in the second round.

Connecticut’s biggest problem has been poor rebounding: they surrendered 46 offensive boards against the No 15 and No. 7 teams in the Tournament. This statistic can be misleading, of course, because teams that miss a lot of shots have more opportunities for offensive boards. Towson averages 17 offensive boards a game, the same number as UCLA. The difference, of course, is that the Bruins score a lot more points at a much higher percentage.

The Huskies only losses on the year were by 11 points to No. 1 Baylor and by nine to Louisville in January, both on the road. Their record certainly argues for a return to the Final Four for the 20th time, but the lack of a player who demands the ball in critical situations is a problem this year, as it has been the last two.

Connecticut frequently can simply outscore its opponents – they rank fourth in scoring offense in the country. If they can get all five starters on track, they should be fine in the Sweet Sixteen. Poor shooting, especially on threes, could doom their hopes.

UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere (21) celebrates with teammates after Japreece Dean scored a three-pointer during the second half Monday. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky.
UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere (21) celebrates with teammates after Japreece Dean scored a three-pointer during the second half Monday. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky.

No. 6 UCLA

At-large bid: 22-12, 12-6 Pac-12

16th NCAA Tournament appearance, third consecutive Sweet 16

Defeated No. 11 Tennessee, 89-77, No. 3 Maryland, 85-80

Head coach: Cori Close, eighth season

Top performers:

Sophomore F Michaela Onyenwere, 18.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg

Senior F Kennedy Burke, 15.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg

Senior G Japreece Dean, 14.1 ppg, 5.1 apg

The Bruins had a tough start on the year, dropping four straight games in for the first time since 2015. They repeated the feat in January to start Pac-12 play. But after losing to arch rival USC, the young team pulled together and won 10 of their final 12 games, including a monumental upset of No. 2 Oregon in overtime.

The engine that has fueled UCLA is sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere, who is having a breakout season. She has scored in double figures in 22 straight games, including three 29-point performances and a career-high 30 against Maryland to advance to the round of 16. Her mid-range game is solid, as is her ability to rebound from seemingly anywhere on the court.

Joining Onyenwere on the rise over the last month is point guard Japreece Dean, whose sharpshooting has give the Bruins points at critical moments – not to mention her defensive stops. Senior forward Kennedy Burke has also stepped up and made big plays in critical moments.

If the Bruins can keep the momentum they had against the Terrapins, if redshirt freshman Lindsey Corsaro can catch fire again, and if senior forward Lajahna Drummer steps up, they can beat the Connecticut Huskies. They have the personnel.

Asia Durr. Photo courtesy of Louisville Athletics.
Asia Durr. Photo courtesy of Louisville Athletics.

No. 1 Louisville Cardinals

At-large bid: 31-3; 14-2 ACC

22nd NCAA Tournament appearance, three Final Fours

Defeated No. 16 Robert Morris, 69-34, No. 8 Michigan, 84-54.

Head coach: Jeff Walz, 12th season

Lost to Notre Dame, 99-79 in the AAC tournament final

Top performers:

Senior G Asia Durr (5-10), 21.3 ppg

Senior F Sam Fuehring (6-3), 10.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg

Sophomore G Dana Evans (5-6), 10.6 ppg, 4.2 apg

Louisville more than justified its No. 1 seed by cruising into Albany with two commanding wins – something none of the other teams in this region have managed. Asia Durr, one of four Naismith Player of the Year finalists, is an offensive force of her own, supported by an athletic, composed, and talented team. Durr is a player who creates her own shot, and lives for the big moment and the pressure of the game.

Louisville has lost twice to Notre Dame (by 12 and 20 points). Their only loss was a surprise defeat at Miami, in a game in which Durr shot poorly. They beat Connecticut by nine at home in late January.

While Durr garners the headlines, the Cardinals defense and ball protection are keys to their success. On the season, Louisville has 84 more steals and 182 fewer turnovers than their opponents. With athletes at every position, they make teams work to find open shots.

Sam Fuehring is the unsung glue to this team seeking its second straight Final Four. She is a mobile center who plays both on the block and outside, and her calm demeanor keeps her teammates grounded.

Louisville is playing the best basketball of the Albany teams, and absent an outstanding performance by one of the other three, they should hold seed and move on to Tampa.

Mikayla Pivec. Photo courtesy of Oregon State Athletics.
Mikayla Pivec. Photo courtesy of Oregon State Athletics.

No. 4 Oregon State Beavers

At large bid: 26-7; 14-4 Pac-12.

Tenth NCAA tournament appearance, including last six.

Defeated No. 13 Boise State, 80-75 OT, No. 5 Gonzaga, 76-70.

Head coach: Scott Rueck, ninth season

Lost to Washington, 68-67, in first round of the Pac-12 tournament

Top performers:

R- Sophomore F (5-7) Destiny Slocum, 15.7 ppg, 4.6 apg

Junior G (5-10) Mikayla Pivec, 15.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg

Sophomore G (5-9) Aleah Goodman, 10.7 ppg, .934 FT

Oregon State clawed its way into the third round with perseverance, as they were on the ropes in both the games that got them to Albany. Mikayla Pivec has kept the Beavers alive by averaging over 20 points in the post-season.

Oregon State has good wins over UCLA and Oregon, but exited the Pac-12 tournament disappointingly early. The NCAAs have been a struggle as well.

Down four with 17 seconds left against Boise State, they forced overtime and played well in the extra period to advance. Pivec led the team with 20 points, but the Beavers shot poorly from beyond the arc, where they usually hold an advantage. They surrendered 25 points off 18 turnovers, but crushed Boise State on the glass, 50-33.

Oregon State reached its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 in a back-and-forth battle against Gonzaga, as Pivec tallied another double-double (19 points, 11 rebounds), and Destiny Slocum scored 10 of her 12 points in the second half. Once again, the Beavers won the battle of the boards, 42-34, but the difference in the final score was their ability to get to the free throw line, and to net 23 of 28 shots.

The team has lots of height on its bench, including 6-8 Joanna Grymek. But she is not an agile defender, nor a consistent scoring threat. Towards season’s end, 6-3 sophomore Taya Corosdale has been their best post player. She can stretch the defense, and sunk 3 of 5 from downtown against Gonzaga.

Success will ride on the shoulders of the consistent Pivec and the streaky Slocum. Against a team as athletic as Louisville, the slower Beavers will be serious underdogs. They have a chance if they can rediscover their sixth-in-the-nation three-point shooting , control the pace to keep the score low, and stay even on the boards.  They have shown that they have the toughness to close out a tight game.

The Albany regional takes place at the Times Union Center on Friday, March 29 and Sunday, March 31. No. 2 Connecticut takes on No. 6 UCLA at 7 p.m. Friday, followed by No. 1 Louisville versus No. 4 Oregon State.

Sue Favor contributed to this report