Trials, Triumphs and Troubles
The Big Ten gets three to the Sweet 16, but loses a heartbreaker on the way
It’s been a wild weekend of basketball, and Big Ten women’s basketball saw the highs and lows that come with the NCAA Tournament.
What was once seven Big Ten teams is now down to three as we enter the Sweet 16. It is certainly possible that this conference will finally have at least one team entering the next weekend, but there is far too much basketball that did happen to talk about before getting into predictions.
Let’s not waste any more time.
NCAA Women’s Tournament Bracket
Big Ten women’s basketball has been a delight all season long, and seven of its teams were able to get into the Field of 68 and show off what this conference was capable of.
Before it really even began, that number was chopped down to five.
Illinois, for as great and miraculous as this season was, found itself completely outmatched by Mississippi State, and fell to the Bulldogs 70-56. Purdue looked to be facing a similar fate, falling behind to St. John’s 60-45 with 1:05 to go in the third quarter. But the Boilermakers scrapped and clawed and tied the game, first with 3:10 to go, then again with 30 seconds remaining, both on made shots by Lasha Petree.
And yet, heartbreak came all the same, this time on a Jayla Everett game-winner with less than a second to go.
So yes, when the Field of 68 became a Field of 64, two Big Ten teams were sent home, but both had excellent seasons and should continue to rise as their new coaches build the programs up.
To avoid a truly disappointing start, that meant all five remaining teams had to win their opening games. They did, all by double digits. That being said, some of these victories came easier than others.
Maryland and Iowa barely had to break a sweat in opening round wins over Holy Cross and Southeastern Louisiana, respectively. Indiana started slow as it rested Mackenzie Holmes, but ultimately beat Tennessee Tech by 30. Ohio State trailed by 16 in the second quarter against James Madison, but did Ohio State things and ended up winning by 14.
Michigan was the team on highest upset watch as the only Big Ten team not at home. The Wolverines were a 6 seed against a 30-win UNLV squad, but Michigan took care of business all the same in a statement 71-59 win. Getting this type of production out of your veteran players made me feel really good about the Wolverines’ chances heading into a matchup with LSU.
So the Big Ten went 5-0 in the Round of 64. Let’s get to the bad stuff now.
Michigan’s momentum on the defensive end of the floor was clear against the Tigers. LSU shot 35.3 percent from the field for the game and was held to 12 first quarter points. The problem was that Michigan was held to just seven, and the gap widened from there.
The same trio that dominated against the Rebels shot a combined 4 of 19 against the Tigers. Laila Phelia (8 of 18, 20 points), accounted for nearly half of Michigan’s points in the 66-42 loss.
This game was decided by one stat, and one player, alone. Angel Reese shot terribly in this game, hitting just 34.8 percent of her shots, all of which were around the rim. It didn’t matter. She secured 24 rebounds (14 offensive) to go with 25 points, four assists, three steals and six blocks in an other-worldly performance on the glass. No matter how well Michigan played defensively, it could not get a rebound, and that let LSU chip away all game long.
A loss here does tell the story of Michigan’s season, though. Per Her Hoop Stats team ratings, Michigan was 23-2 against worse teams than the Wolverines, but 0-8 against better teams. Obviously teams win more against worse opponents, but to not have one win against superior competition is troubling.
Despite all of this, it was yet another terrific season for Kim Barnes Arico in Ann Arbor. This Michigan team was ranked all year, had terrific performances from Leigha Brown and Emily Kiser, the latter of which chose to return from the transfer portal for one final year, and became a star in the process.
Let’s get the last bit of pain out before we talk about the good.
By the time Indiana played Miami (Fla.) on Monday night, the Big Ten already had three teams in the Sweet 16, and the Hoosiers, who won the conference outright, seemed like a safe bet to join them.
But then the Hurricanes started out on fire, and the Hoosiers looked lost. It was 20-12 by the end of the first quarter. It was certainly not time to panic, but the score quickly became 26-12 as it was clear Miami was not going to simply get overwhelmed in the moment.
A Chloe Moore-McNeil three cut the deficit to 32-27 with 2:39 to go, and this was when I started to feel that Indiana was ready to take control. Miami, again, proved me wrong, rattling off a 9-2 run to end the half to take a 12-point lead into the final 20 minutes.
Yet again, Indiana fought back. It was 43-40 with 6:23 to play in the third, and it felt like the next basket could be enough for the Hoosiers to truly take the game over. But then, neither team scored for nearly four minutes (3:57), a pivotal stretch that lost Indiana the momentum. When a team finally did score, it was Miami sinking a trio of free throws to go up six. Indiana cut the deficit to one, 49-48, headed to the fourth.
This fourth quarter was downright phenomenal, despite truly terrible officiating on both sides of the floor. Yelling about refs is lame and not worth spending time on, but it has to be said that it was very, very bad.
Still, Indiana tied the game four times in the fourth quarter: with 3:52 to go, with 3:05 to go, with 49 seconds to go and with 7 seconds to go. Not once did the Hoosiers take the lead, not here, not at any point in the game.
This is where I give Miami all the credit in the world. This Hurricanes team, despite a 1 seed, at home, coming back time and time again, never wavered. Every time the game was tied, it was the Hurricanes that went down and made a play. Miami scored at least one point to break the tie on each of those four fourth quarter possessions.
And yes, that includes the game winner that sent the Big Ten’s top ranked team home in dramatic fashion.
This was not a loss that fell on any one player’s shoulders. Mackenzie Holmes, battling a knee injury, finished with 22 points and nine rebounds. Grace Berger had 17 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Her and Moore-McNeil (9 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists) played all 40 minutes in an all-out war of a game.
We also must talk about Yarden Garzon, the true freshman who hit two of the biggest shots of the year down the stretch, including what was the game-tying shot on an insane stepback with 6.6 to go.
Indiana simply fell into too big a hole and ran into a team that wasn't just willing to let the Hoosiers dig out of it. There were opportunities throughout the second half where Indiana could have gotten its first lead, and maybe that would have shifted the tide. But Miami’s defense was strong, its offense picked the right moments to shine, and the Hurricanes became the second team to take down a 1 seed this tournament.
This Indiana team has been one of my absolute favorites to write about, and there is true sadness in knowing this is the last time I will see them. Much of the core can and likely will be back next season, but Grace Berger will not be. She is one of the coolest players I’ve ever watched, and my goodness she better be playing in the WNBA in a few months.
Those were the losses in the Round of 32. There are still three wins that we need to talk about.
One of them came easy. Maryland trailed at halftime, but absolutely dominated from there, taking down Arizona 77-64 thanks to 24 points, six rebounds and seven assists from Diamond Miller.
Take out one quarter and this was a true demolition: The Terrapins outscored the Wildcats 62-39 in the first, third and fourth quarters. That 25-15 second quarter from Arizona can be explained simply by one key thing: Shyanne Sellers picked up her second foul and had to sit.
I should be talking about Shyanne Sellers way more and that is on me. She is a sensational basketball player, and she changes the way Maryland is able to play. Her 15 points, five rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes speaks to how much she is capable of on the floor.
This Maryland team is playing confidently, and it will get a rematch with Notre Dame, this time with the Irish missing star guard Olivia Miles. Last time, Miles and all, it didn't matter.
Iowa was next, and had the “easiest” matchup of the round by seed with No. 10 Georgia coming in. But this game was a battle, and a great test for the Hawkeyes considering what happened the last time they played a 10 seed in the Round of 32.
The Bulldogs trailed by 10 early but stayed within single digits the rest of the way, constantly in striking distance. But Iowa stayed on top throughout the fourth quarter in spite of it, ultimately coming out with a 74-66 win.
Caitlin Clark, by her own admission, did not have her best game, but did score Iowa’s final six points to help seal it, and finished with 22 points and 12 assists on 6-of-17 shooting. Her playmaking was massive in the win, and she turned it over just three times.
It was another solid showing for Monika Czinano (20 points, 9 rebounds) and McKenna Warnock (14 points, 8 rebounds), but the true X-factor right now is Gabbie Marshall. She is on fire from three, and added 15 points in this game.
Marshall has always been a very good three shooter, but she started ice cold this season, hitting 19 of 82 (23.1 percent) from deep in her first 23 games. Since then? 33 of 54 from deep. 61.1 percent. After not hitting 3 or more threes at any point in the first 27 games of the season, she has done it 5 times over the last 7 games. Obscene.
Iowa has the “easiest” road to the Final Four of any Big Ten team, and again I will put it in quotes because seeding is most certainly not everything. Next, the Hawkeyes get Colorado, a frustrating defense-first team, before either getting another defensively dominant group in Ole Miss or Louisville, led by star guard Hailey Van Lith with a deeply experienced head coach in Jeff Walz.
It would still be a battle for Iowa to get there, but the Hawkeyes should be favored to do it with Stanford, Duke and Texas out of the equation.
Then, finally, it was Ohio State who came through to get to its second straight Sweet 16.
Much like the Hawkeyes, as well as the Hurricanes, Ohio State led the vast majority of this game. But the Buckeyes let North Carolina get oh so close late squandering a 12-point fourth quarter lead that saw them down 67-66 with 2:08 to go. That’s when Ohio State turned to one of its longest tenured players, a player that the Buckeyes had to survive without for much of the season.
And my goodness, did Jacy Sheldon deliver. First, she hit a layup to give the Buckeyes the lead once again. Then, split a pair at the line to make it a two-point lead. When North Carolina once again tied it, Sheldon was there one final time to put Ohio State over the edge.
Sheldon had 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals in the victory. She was one of four Buckeyes with 14+ points in a well-rounded effort to beat the Tar Heels. One of those players was Eboni Walker, whose 15 points and seven rebounds were beyond crucial to Ohio State’s success.
This team is flawed, and goes through stretches of painful viewing about as much as it flashes brilliance. But man, this Ohio State team is a ride that I’m excited to continue on. And yes, we will get our wish: A matchup with UConn, meaning that Dorka Juhasz will be playing her former team for the first time.
Can Ohio State win? I think they can, but it would take everything this team has, similar to Maryland’s chances against South Carolina if those two were to meet in the Elite Eight.
For now, I’m just going to enjoy the ride, because what a ride it has been.
I will be in person for the Sweet 16 games in the Greenville 1 region and the Elite Eight matchup in Greenville 2. I am beyond excited, even if my experience is now Hoosier-less.
Hopefully by next Monday, the Big Ten will have its first Final Four team since 2015. I think it will.
Feature Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State Athletics
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