Mid-Majors Bring Drama—and Parity—to Day 2 of Women's NCAA Tournament

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The last few years have centered on one buzzword for women’s college basketball: parity. Each passing season has offered new discussion about talent being distributed more evenly, rather than concentrated with just a few traditional heavyweights, and this year saw the conversation hit a new peak. Look no further than the buzz around Selection Monday—six teams had a serious argument to be included in the top four, and mid-major squads seemed primed for upsets, which remain rarer on the women’s side than on the men’s. The 2021 bracket looked unprecedentedly wide-open and, perhaps, it would mark an official shift on this count.

But the first day of the tournament disappointed in this regard.

It was all chalk—not a single upset. (Despite a close call from 12-seed Stephen F. Austin.) But the second day more than made up for this. First, No. 11 seed BYU won; then No. 12 seed Belmont and No. 13 seed Wright State followed later in the afternoon. By the evening, Troy was neck-and-neck with powerhouse Texas A&M, threatening to become the first women’s No. 15 seed ever to defeat a No. 2 seed. (The Trojans ultimately lost, 84–80, after a controversial non-call on the final possession.) Here was the drama—and, yes, parity—that had been foretold. And mid-major programs drove it all.

“The mid-major coaches—a lot of us are just really hungry,” said Troy coach Chanda Rigby. “It used to be we were just hungry to get to this tournament. It’s not okay just to get to this tournament anymore for us, you know, we’re here to win.”

That concept was on display in all of these games on Monday. Each looked very much like the lower seed playing up to meet the talent of their opponent rather than the higher seed slipping down. (Wright State, the biggest upset of the day, was in control for almost the entire afternoon over No. 4 seed Arkansas—the Raiders' largest lead of the day was 14, and they lived up to their reputation as a defensive power, out-rebounding the Razorbacks, 44–30.)

Wright State's Angel Baker celebrates during an upset of Arkansas

The last few years have seen more attention paid to the possibility of upsets like these not only in March but also in nonconference play. This season had fewer chances for that due to pandemic scheduling. But mid-major players now enter a program expecting to play against big competition in a way that wasn’t true even just a few years ago.

“We try to schedule as many of the big guys as we can,” said Belmont coach Bart Brooks after his team’s upset of No. 5 seed Gonzaga. “I just think it’s unbelievably important for our team, because every one of our players in our locker room—they came to Belmont so they could compete against big-time programs in big-time moments.”

The growing parity has benefitted from a bit of a flywheel effect in recent years, coaches say. As a program gains more attention, players are more likely to consider coming aboard, and talent spreads even further across the game.

“A lot of the mid-majors… we get exposure more than we used to,” said BYU coach Jeff Jenkins after beating No. 6 seed Rutgers. “We’re on TV almost every home game, and we get on some other games, too. I think it’s just the whole program, and women’s basketball, to me, is just getting better now.”

This marks the first time since 2004 that a No. 13, No. 12 , and No. 11 seed have all advanced to the second round of the women’s tournament. It’s a striking counter to the commonly heard critique that the talent on this side is too lopsided to offer a Cinderella.

“I think it’s very important,” said Wright State coach Katrina Merriweather. “I think the fans would love that. We love the idea of a David-versus-Goliath, you know, and the opportunity to win games that people think we shouldn’t based on our seeding.”

The conversation about parity tends to focus on the question of who will win it all—which is perfectly fair. It’s hard not to fixate on the fact that the eventual champion this year is just as likely to be Stanford as UConn as Baylor as South Carolina as… you get the picture. But this is a notable side effect: Get used to seeing more mid-majors in March.

“We just proved to people all over the world that we are more than capable,” Troy senior forward Alexus Dye said of the team’s brush with history. “It doesn’t matter that we’re mid-major…. It’s about the players. It’s about who buys in.”

Other Observations from Day 2

• It’s hard to overstate just how close Troy came to upsetting Texas A&M—and how big a role the referees played in that. After coming back from 16 points down, Troy was down by two with five seconds remaining. But after a timeout, Texas A&M looked as if it might have committed an over-and-back turnover which, if it had been called, would have given one last possession to Troy. Here’s the statement from the officials: “This was an extremely close play. The officials judged that control of the basketball was not gained until the Texas A&M player was in the backcourt. It was as close as they come. No camera or person had a better angle on the play than the official.”

• The performance of the day might have come from Angel Baker—26 points and 12 rebounds in the upset win for Wright State, with 3-of-3 from beyond the arc, including the crucial three-pointer that sealed their victory. “She does that a lot,” laughed coach Katrina Merriweather. “She takes that shot—the shot that people aren’t ready to take, the shot that people don’t think is going to go in, and every time she releases it.”

• All those upsets and yet the biggest surprise of Monday might have been that No.  seed Maryland, the national scoring leader, didn’t hit triple digits on No. 15 seed Mount St. Mary’s. (The Terps instead settled for…. a mere 98.)

• Alabama’s Jordan Lewis had the honor of the first 30-point game of the tournament in the Crimson Tide’s win over No. 10 seed UNC: 32 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists.

• Poor No. 11 seed South Dakota pulled off a feat that’s sadly hard to match—a one-point quarter against No. 6 seed Oregon. And they were close to being shut out there altogether: The lone bucket, a free throw by Hannah Sjerven, came with just four seconds remaining. 

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