ESPN14 Minute Read
Chalk dominated the majority of opening day of the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament, with the SEC shining brightest thanks to a 5-0 record on Friday.
No. 1 overall seed South Carolina handled Norfolk State, pulling within five wins of an undefeated season and back-to-back national titles, while 3-seed LSU took care of business versus Hawaii.
What was less obvious heading into March was how the middle-of-the-pack SEC teams would fare. But No. 8 seed Ole Miss, 10th-seeded Georgia and 11-seed Mississippi State — which became the first First Four team to make it to the second round — all advanced.
It has been a tougher week for the ACC, as three star players — Florida State’s Ta’Niya Latson, NC State’s Diamond Johnson and Notre Dame’s Olivia Miles — were ruled out either for the entire tournament or, in Johnson’s case, the weekend. Notre Dame didn’t have much trouble routing Southern Utah 82-56, but 10th-seeded Princeton beat 7-seed NC State on Grace Stone’s go-ahead 3-pointer with less than five seconds remaining.
Even the “upsets” weren’t surprises. No. 10 seed Georgia taking down Florida State was conceivable, if not predictable, given Latson’s injury. Same with NC State’s loss sans Johnson. No. 9 seed South Dakota State bested No. 8 USC 62-57 in overtime, but it was an 8-9 matchup. Most stunning was 6-seed Creighton’s loss to the Bulldogs after their Elite Eight run last year. Could Mississippi State, which plays tough defense and can produce both inside-out, assume the role by upsetting the Irish on Sunday?
ESPN’s Alexa Philippou, Charlie Creme and M.A. Voepel break down the highlights from the first round and look at what to expect across the rest of the early-round games.
Give us your best overreaction based on one day of games.
Creme: No. 2 seed Maryland will be a real threat to South Carolina in Greenville if Brinae Alexander can shoot like she did against Holy Cross. The Terrapins made nine 3-pointers and scored 93 points Friday. Alexander shot 4-for-7 on 3s. Her improved production has been a large part of Maryland’s high-level play in the later part of the season. In the Terps’ last six games, the Vanderbilt transfer made 18 of 36 attempts from beyond the arc, and she’s shooting 44.3% there for the season. She led Maryland with 18 points off the bench against the Crusaders in an efficient 25 minutes.
The Gamecocks don’t have much vulnerability, but a team with multiple deep threats can, at least partially, neutralize their defense — even one as good as South Carolina’s. Alexander, Abby Meyers, Lavender Briggs and Shyanne Sellers might just give Maryland the shooters to pull an Elite Eight surprise.
Philippou: LSU, a team that has already caught a lot of flack for its easy nonconference schedule, is in trouble if everyone around Angel Reese comes out as flat as they did versus Hawaii and if the Tigers don’t rebound better (40-33). Reese was dominant (34 points, 15 rebounds), but LSU shot 1-for-14 from the arc, and Alexis Morris went 3-for-10 from the field. The path will get much more difficult for the Tigers from here on out with Michigan up next after the Wolverines managed a big win over UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in what was considered a possible upset game — and then potentially a team like high-octane Utah in the Sweet 16.
Voepel: Maybe the SEC will have two teams in the Final Four. We’ve all been picking South Carolina to go to Dallas basically since the national championship game ended last year. Much was made of the SEC not being as good as usual this season, other than the Gamecocks. But the SEC went 5-0 on Friday, including the upsets by Georgia and Mississippi State — even if neither of those outcomes was really a surprise. Saturday, No. 4 Tennessee and No. 10 Alabama will try to keep the SEC perfect in the first round.
What or who surprised you the most in Friday’s games?
Creme: Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was that there weren’t any true surprises. It was on the opening day of the first round exactly 364 days ago that No. 10 seed Creighton knocked off No. 7 Colorado, 12-seed Florida Gulf Coast beat No. 5 Virginia Tech and No. 10 seed South Dakota upset No. 7 Ole Miss. Those were truly unexpected. Even when a lower seed won Friday, like Mississippi State or Georgia, it wasn’t considered an upset. The Bulldogs were the betting favorite.
Alissa Pili’s 33-point, eight-rebound performance wasn’t a surprise, but the Utah star’s eight assists raised an eyebrow (she averaged 2.1 heading into the tournament). Utah assisted on 32 of its 37 field goals in the 26-point win over Gardner-Webb.
Philippou: I didn’t expect Gonzaga to lose, let alone so badly, to Ole Miss (71-48), but credit the Rebels’ defense. The Bulldogs went 1-for-17 from 3 despite entering the tournament with a 41.5% clip from the arc, best in the country.
And while I predicted the Tigers to beat NC State, the Wolfpack appeared in control most of the game. So I didn’t think it would end that way, with Carla Berube’s squad clawing back from being down two possessions early in the fourth and holding NC State scoreless for the final 5:44 of the game. Credit the Tigers for their grit and resilience, something we saw with how they rebounded from their 0-2 Ivy League start or even in how they rallied from a deficit to nearly knock off UConn in December. The Utes’ high-powered offense will be a tall task for the defensive-focused Princeton, but it’ll be a fascinating matchup nonetheless.
Voepel: No. 1 seed Virginia Tech won, but two-time ACC player of the year Elizabeth Kitley took just six shots in a 58-33 victory over No. 16 Chattanooga. Kitley finished with 12 points, but as usual, cleaned up on the boards with 14. In the Hokies’ second-round game against No. 9 South Dakota State Jackrabbits, they’re likely to need more touches for their star center. On a positive note, it appears the Hokies’ Taylor Soule, who left Friday’s game, was suffering from muscle cramps and is likely to play Sunday.
What are you most looking forward to seeing Saturday?
Creme: Maryland (93 points) and Iowa (95) did their part, but with No. 1 seeds South Carolina and Virginia Tech scoring well below their averages, this tournament could use an injection of points. No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee (vs. 6-seed Colorado, 7 p.m. ET on ESPNews) and 12-seed FGCU (vs. 5-seed Washington State, 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU), who each run a spread offense and move the ball, could be the upsets and spark that we didn’t see in Friday’s games. If the tournament continues to hold chalk like it did largely on Day 1, the second round will be filled with heavyweights, but I’m doubting Saturday will go so closely to form.
Philippou: How 5-seed Washington State shows up after its Cinderella run in the Pac-12 tournament will be interesting. As Virginia Tech learned in last year’s NCAA tournament, FGCU is a tough first-round matchup, but Kamie Ethridge’s Cougars are eager to show their four wins in five days in the Pac-12 tourney weren’t a fluke. They’ll need to bring a standout defensive performance against a team that shoots more 3s than anyone else in the country (and makes a lot of them). Charlisse Leger-Walker has been a star out west for years and has gone under the radar. Bella Murekatete also had a stellar run in the Pac-12 tournament, scoring at least 19 points against Utah and UCLA. Now, both players will be on national television — against one of the most successful mid-majors in the sport.
Voepel: I’m interested to see how the Big 12 will do with five of its six teams in the tournament playing Saturday. West Virginia were the league’s first team to play, losing Friday to Arizona. Only one Big 12 team is hosting: No. 4 Texas shouldn’t have too much trouble with No. 13 East Carolina.
The other four matchups could be interesting: No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 Portland, and No. 8 Oklahoma State vs. No. 9 Miami are both a contrast of styles. On the other hand, No. 5 Iowa State (276 3-pointers) are somewhat similar to No. 12 Toledo (209). And No. 7 Baylor, which faces No. 10 Alabama, have been up and down this season. We will see which version of Baylor appears Saturday.
Mississippi State over 6-seed Creighton was a popular upset pick. What did you like about the Bulldogs’ first-round win — and how will they test Notre Dame?
Philippou: No. 11 seed Mississippi State was a strong 3-point shooting team entering the tournament; its 35.2% accuracy ranks 36th in the country. But the Bulldogs picked the right game to totally go off from 3, as Friday’s 11 treys tied their season high. And while Jessika Carter went off against Illinois (22 points, nine rebounds) in the First Four, Mississippi State didn’t need to rely on her or paint scoring as much against Creighton. The Bulldogs also got it done on the defensive end, frustrating the Bluejays and forcing them to take difficult shots (Creighton finished 26.5% from the arc). If Mississippi State can translate that defensive disruption into Sunday, it could be a headache for a Notre Dame team without its starting point guard. The Irish have been a pretty good defensive unit, and they’ll be tasked with making sure the Bulldogs don’t stay hot from 3. But Sam Purcell’s squad can be effective in the paint as well via Carter and with its guards getting downhill.
Creme: I underestimated Jessika Carter’s size and impact in both of Mississippi State’s NCAA tournament wins. The 6-foot-5 senior has 36 points and 19 rebounds combined. What stands out even more about the Bulldogs success this week was that Carter wasn’t even Mississippi State’s best player on Friday; junior JerKaila Jordan was. Carter’s size changes games, but it’s not essential for the Bulldogs to win.
Their athleticism shined against Creighton and could trouble the Irish. Notre Dame’s backcourt is depleted without Olivia Miles and Dara Mabrey. Bulldogs coach Sam Purcell is going to be able to run Jordan, Anastasia Hayes, Ahlana Smith, Debreasha Powe, Asianae Johnson and Kourtney Weber in a rotation that could wear down Notre Dame’s Sonia Citron and KK Bransford. That group combined to make 11 of 19 3-pointers against Creighton and, while better than normal, it was no fluke; Mississippi State was fourth in the SEC in 3-point accuracy this season. If those guards get to the rim with their athleticism and shoot it well from deep, and Carter has some influence inside against Maddy Westbeld and Lauren Ebo, we could get a result that we can categorize as a true upset.
This feels familiar: Iowa hosts a 10-seed on its home court in the second round. What do you expect when the Hawkeyes face Georgia on Sunday?
Voepel: It’s eerie how similar the circumstances are to last year. Friday, No. 2 seed Iowa won its March Madness opener by 52 points, the program’s largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game, with Caitlin Clark scoring 26 points. That followed No. 10 seed Georgia beating No. 7 Florida State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Last year, the Hawkeyes were also a No. 2 seed, won their opener by 40, then faced the No. 10 seed, which had upset No. 7. That didn’t go well for Iowa, which lost 64-62 to Creighton. Iowa does not want a repeat.
Georgia is a tough opponent, for different reasons than Creighton was. The 2022 Bluejays shot a ton of 3-pointers. Georgia was last in the SEC in 3s; the Bulldogs have 113 this year to Iowa’s 293. As a result, the zone the Hawkeyes used so effectively against SE Louisiana on Friday could be big against Georgia, too.
But the Bulldogs have size, depth and defense: They have held foes to 58.6 PPG this season. Iowa, which has averaged a Division I-best 87.8 PPG, wants a high-scoring game Sunday. Both Clark and teammate Monika Czinano said Friday the Hawkeyes will talk as a team about last year and what went wrong in the second round, although this will be a very different matchup.
“Not even so much about the X’s and O’s, but more how dialed in we have to be for every game,” Czinano said. “The coaches don’t even have to say it. We all know.”