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NCAA women’s tournament: Six thoughts heading into the Sweet 16

Six things of note as the 2016 NCAA women’s tournament heads to the Sweet 16

Six thoughts as the women’s tournament heads to the Sweet Sixteen:

1. Washington blows up the Lexington region

The tournament’s most impressive win came on Monday when No. 7 Washington knocked off No. 2 Maryland on the Terps’ home court. This wasn’t just a No. 7 seed upsetting a No. 2 seed, though: Maryland was a top-5 team all season and plenty of people believed it would end up Indianapolis for a third consecutive Final Four.

How did this happen? Junior guard Kelsey Plum. The nation’s No. 3 scorer (26.1 points per game) finished with 32 points, seven assists, six rebounds and was 13 of 14 from the line. Plum’s biggest play of the night wasn’t even a basket. With Maryland cutting the lead to 60–55 with under two minutes to play, Plum drove the lane, drew a pair of defenders and kicked a pass to Talia Walton on the wing. Walton then calmly made a three-pointer to give the Huskies an eight-point lead, which the Huskies never relinquished.

This is Washington’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2001, and it’s great that a national audience will see Plum, who can score from distance or on the drive, and has carried her team offensively all season. Washington faces another road game on Friday when it meets Kentucky in Lexington.

2. Tennessee changes a season-long narrative

One of the fascinating games of the Sweet 16 features No. 7 Tennessee against No. 3 Ohio State on Friday in Sioux Falls. The Lady Vols entered the tournament with the lowest seeding in program history following an awful regular season (based on historic standards) but have flipped the narrative over the first two games of tournament with wins over Green Bay and Arizona State. Tennessee finished with 42 points in the paint against the Sun Devils thanks to strong games from center Mercedes Russell and forward Bashaara Graves. The inside scoring freed up space for star guard Diamond DeShields, who finished with 24 points on 9-for-17 shooting.

The next challenge for Tennessee will be Ohio State sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell, who put up 45 points (including five three-pointers) on West Virginia and has 72 points in two NCAA games. You wonder what Tennessee has planned to slow her down. The Lady Vols played an effective 2–3 zone against Oregon State, but that seems unlikely to work against the sharp-shooting Mitchell. If Tennessee advances to the Elite Eight, this season will go down as an unexpected gem. Who could have seen that a month ago?

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3. Stanford is a Cinderella killer

South Dakota State outplayed Stanford for most of its Round of 32 game on Monday night, including leading 64–60 with 1:28 left and 65–63 with 17.6 seconds remaining. The women’s tournament has had only three No. 12 seeds advance to the Sweet 16 and for most of the game it looked like South Dakota State, which upset No. 5 Miami in the opening round, was going to join the club.

But the Jackrabbits killed themselves with turnovers late. Cardinal junior point guard Lili Thompson hit a driving layup with 8.2 seconds left to tie the game and was fouled on the play. Her free throw ended up being the difference in a 66–65 Stanford win. On the game’s final possession, Stanford forward Erica McCall blocked South Dakota State’s Macy Miller’s mid-range jumper. Stanford advances to play top-seeded Notre Dame in Lexington on Friday. The Irish will be favored, but it’s worth noting that fellow Pac 12 teams UCLA (92–84 in overtime) and Oregon State (62–61) played Notre Dame very tough this year. Watch out for the matchup of McCall versus Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner.

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4. Yes, UConn is human

No. 1 UConn played its ugliest first quarter of the season on Monday night against No. 9 Duquesne. The Huskies shot 8 of 22 in the first quarter and actually trailed 14–13 with 2:21 left in the opening period following an 8–0 run by the Dukes. Eventually, order was restored, including UConn star forward Breanna Stewart blocking three shots in one possession. The three-time defending national champs went on a long second-quarter run and ran away to a 97–51 win.

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5. Much respect for Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair

Imagine how big a story it would be if the second-leading scorer (and a four-year starter) as well as a backup point guard for a men’s team was suspended 40 minutes prior to their NCAA opener. That was the case for Blair, who suspended senior guard/forward Courtney Williams (12.5 points per game) and junior backup guard Shlonte Allen for his team’s win over Missouri State for violating team policy. He also sat them on Monday night night against Florida State. The No. 4 Aggies could survive on talent in their opening round, but No. 5 Florida State was too much to handle. FSU won easily, 74–56, but give Blair credit for sticking to his principles. Plenty of coaches would not suspend key players during the tournament.

6. The Pac 12 represents

Four teams from the Pac 12—Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington—advanced to the Sweet 16. That’s a first for the conference in the NCAA tournament.