In the days leading up to Saturday’s match-up between No. 1 UConn and No. 5 Iowa, perhaps the most hyped contest in the history of the women’s Sweet 16, people from both programs said all the right things. It’s not about just two players. It’s about the whole team. There will be people on the floor besides freshmen phenoms Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark.
This, of course, is just what everyone is supposed to say in this situation. But in this case, these statements came true, and they were punctuated by the game that followed: No. 2 Baylor versus No. 6 Michigan, an overtime thriller, which likewise featured huge contributions from players other than the biggest stars. If Bueckers-vs.-Clark was marketed as the future of women’s basketball, Saturday afternoon instead drove home that this future is bigger, and brighter, than can be captured by any one or two players.
UConn bested Iowa, 92 to 72, in a game that was played closer than its final score indicated. The Huskies’ effort was led not by Bueckers but by the ensemble around her: Aaliyah Edwards, who came out hot in the first quarter; Evina Westbrook, who finished one board short of a triple double; and, most of all, Christyn Williams, who came close to matching her career scoring high with 27.
“It was not going to be easy on either Caitlin or Paige to play their normal game, and obviously neither of them did,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of the heavily hyped match-up. “Even though both of them played really, really well.”
(It’s a reminder of just how good both of these players are that not being able to “play their normal game” looked like 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists for Bueckers, and 21 points, 3 rebounds, and 5 assists for Clark.)
Despite the fact that Bueckers has received more attention than anyone on this (or any) roster this season, a balanced attack like this has been the norm for UConn, which shouldn’t be surprising. Edwards was second in the nation for effective field goal percentage; Williams, despite an up-and-down college career, was the No. 1 recruit of 2018. This system was built to hold all of them—which works well for Bueckers, who is still a pass-first point guard, even with all the attention she gets as “Paige Buckets.”
The situation is somewhat similar for Iowa: Clark, who led the country in scoring, rightfully captures most of the notice here. But the Hawkeyes also rely heavily on the post presence of Monika Czinano, who scored 11 on Saturday, and the shooting of McKenna Warnock, who added 20.
“We have other pieces of this puzzle,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder.
The dominant narrative had focused on Bueckers and Clark as the players to watch, not just in this contest, but in women’s college basketball as a whole. But it was disrupted by the talent of the other faces on the floor, and it was busted up entirely by the game that came next on ABC, which offered arguably the most thrilling play of the tournament so far—and more examples of highlights from players whose names do not always drive as much conversation.
Michigan never led in regulation, but tied the game to send it to overtime, and was one near-miss of a desperation heave away from an upset victory. Baylor won 78 to 75.
“Obviously, we’re led by an All-American in Naz Hillmon,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Amico said. “But the pieces around her, and the confidence that they all had around her, was incredible.”
Baylor successfully shut down Big Ten Player of the Year Hillmon for much of the game and held her to 16. Instead, Michigan was led by 23 points from Leigha Brown and 14 from Akienreh Johnson—who typically averages less than one successful three-pointer per game but made three on Saturday.
“Hillmon, we know, is a great player,” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. “I thought we contained her pretty much. But they had kids who barely average scoring and they were hitting threes, they almost doubled the number of threes that they average … Was it a good game for ABC? You bet it was. Was it a good game for women’s basketball? You bet it was.”
And Baylor’s effort was led not just by NaLyssa Smith, who went 11 of 11 from the field to tie a tournament record, and Moon Ursin, who scored 20, but also by DiJonai Carrington—who came off the bench to score 19.
“It just shows how deep the roster goes, just knowing that everybody could score the ball,” Smith said. “If I’m not hot, Moon’s going to be hot. If Moon’s not hot, DiJonai’s going to be hot, or maybe all three of us are going to be hot at the same time.”
A day that was marketed as being about just two players instead offered space for many. It offered a reminder that there is room in the women’s game for more than just one story. It happened on the biggest stage possible—with both of these games broadcast on network TV in the first year that all tournament games have been televised nationally.
“All the games televised instead of whip-around coverage has been just terrific, and you know, these games today being played on ABC—this is good for our game, and this is what we need to grow our game, this is what we’ve been missing,” said Bluder. It recalled an answer that Clark gave earlier this week when asked about what it meant for her to face off with Bueckers:
“I think that’s the whole goal that all women athletes are trying to get across right now,” she said. “There can be multiple superstars, there can be multiple good players, it doesn’t have to be one end-all-be-all.”
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