After a year hiatus from the madness, the NCAA women’s basketball tournament has returned to cap off a wild season filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. Cancellations, postponements and reschedules could not stop the process of crowning a champion, however, as the competing field of 64 teams was announced on Monday night. A tournament unlike any other seems like a fitting end to the most wild regular season to date.
Following a thrilling, come-from-behind victory in the West Coast Conference championship game, the Gonzaga Bulldogs (23-3, 16-1 WCC) earned a fifth seed in this year’s NCAA tournament, matching the program’s highest placement set in 2019. Prior to the selection, the team rose in the Associated Press’ rankings to No. 14 nationally, up one spot from the previous week. Along with a five game winning streak, the Zags are excited to showcase their talents on the game’s biggest stage after last year’s unfulfilling conclusion.
“It feels like it’s been longer than two years,” Head Coach Lisa Fortier said. “But we’re excited about the game and we’re glad we’ve made it to this point.”
Awaiting GU in the first round is the Ohio Valley Conference champion Belmont Bruins (20-5, 14-3 OVC), who come into the tournament on a hot streak of their own. Winners of 10 straight, BU coasted through its conference play with numerous blowout wins, including five of their last seven games decided by double digits. The Bruins finished the season leading the OVC in scoring offense and defense, powered by efficient shooting and disciplined playmaking with a positive 4.7 turnover margin average per game.
The potent Bruins offense is fueled by the conference’s freshman of the year in Destinee Wells, who has consistently stepped up for her team throughout the regular season. Leading the team with 17.6 points per game, she has also been efficient shooting from deep, knocking down 40.7% on nearly four attempts per night. Her impact was felt immediately upon arrival, as she has started in all but one contest for the Bruins, including her first career game where she logged 34 minutes of play against Kentucky.
Even with an outstanding first season filled with conference accolades, Wells saved her best performance when it mattered most. In the OVC championship game against UT Martin, the freshman scored a program-best 32 points en route to being named the tournament’s most valuable player. Her output led BU to a 83-75 victory over the Skyhawks.
With Wells on the perimeter, Madison Bartley and Conley Chinn provide the Bruins with a presence in the paint. Bartley, a freshman herself, protected the interior with her 6’3” stature, averaging nearly a block per game. On the offensive end, it was Chinn who controlled the paint with 12.5 points per game. The all-OVC first team member was also BU’s top rebounder with 4.9 boards a night.
Despite the challenges, the Zags should hold their own against the Bruins in the first round. Overall, the talent in the frontcourt alone and depth off the bench is GU’s strength in this matchup that will likely propel them to the second round.
The road to the Final Four only gets more difficult in the second round, however, with the Bulldogs’ most likely opponent being the Indiana Hoosiers (18-5, 16-2 Big Ten), who earned a four seed in the tournament after a second place finish in the Big Ten. A loss to Michigan State in the conference tournament prevented the Hoosiers from earning a conference crown, yet it was an impressive season for Head Coach Teri Moren and her team. Boasting one of the Big Ten’s best offenses and defenses, IU notched quality victories over rivals Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern, all of which ranked inside the top 25.
An outstanding run through conference play was powered by the services of forward Mackenzie Holmes, who provided sparks on both ends of the floor. While leading the team with 18.1 points per game, she was also a defensive anchor, averaging 2.8 blocks a night. At 6’5,” she has continued to impose her will on smaller forwards and guards, making it difficult for opponents to find success in the paint.
On the perimeter, guard Grace Berger provides the Hoosiers with toughness and crafty playmaking. Not much of an outside threat, Berger favors drives to the rim that allow her to find open shooters or draw shooting fouls on layup attempts. Averaging nearly five free throw attempts a game, the junior is not afraid to get physical down low despite her smaller build as a guard.
Should the Zags move onto the Sweet Sixteen, the top-seeded North Carolina State Wolfpack (20-2, 12-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) will most likely stand in the way barring any early round upsets.
Overall, the Wolfpack attacked their opponents in a variety of ways. Averaging 16.8 points per game, Cunane was also extremely efficient on offense, shooting 57% from the field on 10.4 attempts a night. She formed a dynamic duo with guard Jakia Brown-Turner, who knocked down the deep ball at a high rate of 37.8% this season. In the clutch, it was guard Raina Perez who stepped up to give her team a score when it mattered most. With the score knotted at 56, the graduate student knocked down the go-ahead jumper with two seconds left after converting back-to-back free throws to tie the game.
Nonetheless, it’s March, a time where trends and streaks mean almost nothing after tipoff. Upsets are bound to happen and teams can get hot at a moments notice despite regular season records and statistics. In a year where nothing was guaranteed from the start, only the hungriest team will come out on top. A five seed means nothing in the end, and this Zags squad knows their time could be now.
“It’s all or nothing,” GU senior forward Jenn Wirth said. “It’s March, and obviously watching all of the conference tournaments, upsets happen. It’s the best time of the year.”