Teams bringing a lot more than game into the NCAA Tournament

The Lady Vols will take on in-state rival Middle Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament’s first round Sunday. Tennessee Athletics photo.

As the first round of the NCAA Tournament begins tomorrow, teams are bringing much more than usual into competition.

The cancelation of last year’s tourney due to the COVID-19 pandemic has many feeling more grateful than usual that there are postseason games to play now. At the same time, inequities between the women’s and men’s Tournaments that were brought to light this week are reminders that gender equality is far from reality.

And between those ends, every team experienced challenges this year, as the pandemic limited or halted them in some way.

Mercado region

In what promises to be a high-scoring matchup, No. 2 Texas A&M plays No. 15 Troy Monday. The Aggies lost in the semifinal of the SEC Tournament to Georgia, after winning the regular-season title. It was just their second loss on the year, and it cost them the top seed, which went to ACC champs NC State.

Forward N’dea Jones said the snub has given the team extra incentive.

“We’re definitely all playing with a chip on our shoulder, especially after the bracket came out,” she said.

Guard Aaliyah Wilson said she and her teammates are confident entering the Tournament.

“We have a lot of veterans and know what it takes to play on this stage,” she said. “We know we can make that run.”

Coach Gary Blair said A&M is a deeper team than it’s been in a few years, and bench play has been key to their success this season. To make a deep run, the team has worked on eradicating their tendency to get off to slow starts.

“It’s time for kids to produce, and it’s time for me to produce as a coach by pulling the right buttons and motivating the kids that go in,” he said. “We’re going to find a way, and I guarantee you the first quarter of the game against Troy, get your seatbelt because we’re going to be fast. And they will too.”

River Walk region

No. 3 Tennessee faces No. 14 Middle Tennessee tomorrow in what could be a fiery, hard-fought game. The teams are true rivals, and there are plenty of former ties between them.

Lady Vol coach Kellie Harper played for Blue Raider coach Rick Insell at summer basketball camps as a teen many years ago. Middle Tennessee’s top scorer, Anastasia Hayes, transferred from Tennessee after the 2018-2019 season.

Harper complimented Hayes, and said her team would have to find ways to contain her and keep her from scoring if they wanted to win.

“We’re going in to do what we’ve done all year long, and I think that’s important,” Harper said. “They’ll be disciplined, they’ll box out, and we will have to be really good on the boards to be able to continue to outrebound our opponents.”

One of the most exciting matchups of the first day promises to be No. 6 Michigan against No. 11 FGCU, featuring two of the most dynamic scorers and playmakers in the country.

Naz Hillmon was named Big Ten player of the year and put up a Wolverine school record 50 points in a game in January. Kierstan Bell was the ASUN player of the year and broke her school’s single-game scoring record last month, with 42 points. Both know each other well, as Bell is from Ohio and played for the Buckeyes for a year before transferring to the Eagle program.

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said that no matter who a team draws for the first round, they tend to believe that they have the hardest opponent in the entire bracket. When they were paired with FGCU, she felt that way again.

“She was a super recruit coming out of high school – one of the best players in the country,” Arico said of Bell. “She has an incredible IQ and feel for the game. I watched her for a really long time on the AAU circuit, and I definitely think that it helps that our kids know her.”

The Wolverines had to pause for 10 days in December after a positive COVID test, and then for three weeks at the end of January when the athletics department shut down. Arico said it disrupted their momentum and impeded the development of the younger players, but Hillmon’s leadership and the resilience of the team helped them bounce back.

“The one thing that has helped all of us through this is the character of our kids and the way they have rallied,” Arico said. “It starts with Naz….when your best player is your hardest worker. You can see it because of her ability to connect people, and I think she’s managed to keep our team connected through all of this.”

Hillmon, who lead social justice protests last year, kept the uproar from the inequities between the women’s and men’s tournaments in perspective.

“Do I think this single situation is going to get us to where we are happy with? I don’t think so. But I do think it will be the stepping stone and the foundation that will help us to get to where we want to be eventually,” she said.

“I mean, and it sucks to say, I mean you would hope that this one incident would change anybody’s mind and everybody would see it and….it would never happen again. But it’s not a reality.”

Kim Mulkey, whose Baylor Lady Bears are the No. 2 seed in the region, expressed similar sentiments. She said her focus is on the Tournament.

“I’m not sure in my lifetime a lot of things will ever change,” Mulkey said. “Control what you can control. All we can control right now is go out on the floor and win a basketball game.”

They play No. 15 Jackson State Monday.

Hemisfair region

No. 3 UCLA triumphed over adversity time and time again this year. Opt-outs, the inability of international players to get to the U.S. due to COVID restrictions, as well as injuries, kept their roster at seven or eight all season long. But the Bruins soldiered on, always finding ways to win and improve, and they never dropped out of the top 15.

Their season ended with a 20-point loss to No. 1 Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament – their largest margin of defeat. But they regrouped, and are entering NCAA play with a different mindset.

“When we came back we sat down and had a player’s meeting to talk about refocusing,” forward Natalie Chou said. “Our captains did a great job of leading that. They said that it was a tough game, but we have more basketball to get through and we have to learn from the Stanford loss.”

Coach Cori Close said that she has dealt with the ups and downs of the year by keeping practices and messages to the athletes consistent.

“We’ve had the intention to learn from each day and to bring joy each day,” Close said. “(After) the Pac-12 Tournament we talked about pace and process, and what does that look like. We held ourselves accountable for that.”

UCLA will take on Mountain West Tournament champions Wyoming, seeded 14th, on Monday. Close said it will be a challenge.

“We’ll have to be really locked in, mentally,” she said.

Alamo region

Georgia surprised many this year by going 20-6, and they barreled through the SEC Tournament before being beaten in the title game by South Carolina. The Bulldogs were seeded third in the NCAA Tournament – their highest since 2004. Coach Joni Taylor was named conference coach of the year, and is a finalist for Naismith coach of the year.

The team is close, and they are challenged having to be in single-occupancy rooms in their San Antonio hotel.

“We really enjoy each other,” senior guard Gabby Connally said. “Off the court, we spend a lot of time together, and us being in the bubble, we each have our own separate rooms, so that’s kind of different for us. We don’t get to go to each other’s rooms, which is unfortunate beause we just like being around one another.”

Conally said she and her teammates Facetime each other, and make the most of practices and transit time when they get to talk and tell jokes.

“I think we’re just able to cherish the time that we do have together that much more, because we are all being separated and isolated from each other,” she said.

But Taylor has been helping out.

“Coach Joni, she’s so nice. She made these bags for us,” Connally said. “This is just one thing, but it’s like a coloring book. I’ve been coloring. She got us a book in there, a journal, a couple other things…..that just goes to show you she truly cares about us and wants us to try and stay in the moment and have something for us to do.”

Georgia faces No. 14 Drexel Monday.