Both Indiana and Arizona punched their tickets to the Elite 8 for the first time in program history Saturday by upsetting higher-seeded opponents.
The Hoosiers hung on down the stretch to take down No. 1 NC State, 73-70. In the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack clawed back from a 10-point deficit to close the gap to 72-70, with 14 seconds left. Coach Wes Moore called his last timeout, which he admitted later was a mistake, as Indiana was about to do the same thing. Ali Patberg hit one of two free throws for Indiana with 12 seconds to go, and NC State didn’t have a timeout. Center Elissa Cunane’s three-point shot attempt missed the mark.
The win was a triumph for the Hoosiers, who had two players opt out midseason and saw four games postponed or canceled. Nevertheless, seventh-year coach Teri Moren said she saw it coming.
“Our expectations for each other, for the team, for coaches, are high. So I’m not surprised that we’re sitting here talking about the next step, which is an Elite 8 for this group,” Moren said. “I don’t think that our players are surprised.”
Moren said playing tougher opponents over the last few years and upping their game on both ends of the floor has increased her team’s confidence.
“We are who we are. We are blue-collar,” she said. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and we’re going to step between the lines, and we’re going to go to work. It’s a competitive environment, we’re going to try to go toe-to-toe with you. We’re not going to back down from anybody.”
The Wolfpack were without starter Kayla Jones, who has been out with a knee injury since the first round. Moore said that gave their opponents an advantage.
“Indiana, they took care of the ball better,” he said. “They did a better job on the boards. Consequently, even though we maybe shoot a little better, they got more opportunities and took advantage of that.”
NC State entered the NCAA Tournament with a lot of momentum after winning the ACC Tournament. The No. 3 Wildcats, on the other hand, began the season strong but finished on a downward trend, losing three of their last four regular-season games. They bowed out in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament semifinals.
Against the No. 2 Aggies, Arizona took control a few minutes into the first quarter, and never let up. Aari McDonald scored 19 points by halftime and another 13 after the break to power her team to a 74-59 win. It was a full circle moment for coach Adia Barnes, who lead the Wildcats to the round of 16 in 1998, as a player. They lost in that round to UConn.
After a six-year career in the WNBA, Barnes eventually entered the coaching ranks. It was as an assistant at the University of Washington that she was the primary recruiter for McDonald. After the star guard’s freshman year, Barnes got the job at Arizona, and McDonald followed.
In a post-game interview after the win, Barnes credited McDonald for helping her turn the program around.
“Great players show up on the big stage. That’s what she did,” Barnes said. “We’re peaking at the right time as a team. She is letting the game come to her. She is not forcing shots. She was 12-for-21, that’s a pretty good darn stat line with I think only one turnover. She doesn’t want to turn the ball over. She’s running our team and she’s a player with the ball a lot.”
McDonald said she and her teammates felt the momentum, and took over the game.
“I felt it in the first half, honestly,” she said. “I mean, although the score was close, we controlled the tempo, the game the whole game…..I knew once I started hitting, my teammates started hitting, my defense, it was the moment. I had no doubt we were going to win at all times. We did a great job of controlling the tempo in the game.”
A&M coach Gary Blair said his team was outmatched.
“We missed a lot of layups. We missed a lot of post play. We didn’t have the three-point shooters that Arizona had. Our matchup zone was not as good,” Blair said. “When we did press, we forced a couple turnovers, but not enough to really bother them.”
The Aggies had hoped to repeat their magical Championship run of a decade ago. But after their loss, that was the furthest thing on their minds.
“When I got to the locker room, we didn’t talk about the game itself,” Blair said. “We talked about what this team had overcome and gone through, just like other young ladies in other locker rooms or dugouts or football fields, what we’ve all gone through. That was my message, just a ‘thank you.'”
Indiana and Arizona face off Monday at 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET on ESPN.