SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The excitment is in the air at Purcell Pavillion as Baylor, Kentucky, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State are going through the final stages this morning in preparation for Saturday's regional semifinal games. With undefeated top-seed Notre Dame as the favorite to advance to next week's Final Four in Nashville, the Bears, Wildcats and Cowgirls come to South Bend to play the spoiler's role.
Most see a Baylor-Notre Dame match-up in the Elite Eight, and that's what we predict as well. Still, Kentucky, which finished second, by a hair, in the SEC Tournament, cannot be ruled out, and OSU played Baylor to within a few points in two of their three games in the Big 12 this season. So which will prove to be more important -- experience or hunger, having been there before or wanting ever-so-desperately, to witness the Final Four for the very first time.
Only time will tell, as any of these teams has the talent to beat any of the others on the right day. All of which means that the Notre Dame Regional could be the most exciting of any in this year's NCAA Divisio I Women's Basketball Tournament.
Game One: (2) Baylor (31-4) vs. (3) Kentucky (26-8)
Where: Purcell Pavilion, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.
When: Saturday, March 29, 12 p.m. (Noon) EDT.
Coaches: Kim Mulkey (Baylor); Matthew Mitchell (Kentucky).
How they got there: Baylor – Defeated 15th-seed Western Kentucky, 87-74, in the opening round; defeated seventh-seed California 75-56.
Kentucky – Defeated 14th-seed Wright State, 106-60, in Round One; defeated sixth-seed Syracuse, 64-59, in Round Two.
All-time series: Tied 1-1.
Last meeting: Kentucky defeated Baylor, 133-130, in four overtimes on Dec. 6, 2013, at Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas.
Points per game: Baylor: 81.1 oppg., 54.1 dppg. Kentucky 81.8 oppg., 67.8 dppg.
Probable starting lineups: Baylor –Nina Davis, forward (15.1 ppg,8.9 rbg)
Sune Agbuke, center (6.0 ppg, 7.5 rbg)
Odyssey Sims, guard (28.5 ppg, 4.6 rbg, 4.6 apg)
Niya Johnson, guard (5.1 ppg, 3.5 rbg, 6.6. apg)
Makenzie Robertson, guard (7.3 ppg, 3.9 rbg)
Kentucky -- DeNesha Stallworth, forward (12.2 ppg, 6.9 rbg)
Samarie Walker, forward (8.9 ppg, 8.9 rbg)
Janee Thompson, guard (8.8 ppg, 3.1 apg)
Bria Goss, guard (10.1 ppg.)
Kastine Evans, guard (8.3 ppg.)
Key Stat: 4-2. Four of Baylor’s starters logged over 30 minutes in its win Monday over California. Only two Kentucky starters played over 30 minutes in its win over Syracuse. The Wildcats' legs will be fresher, though with four days off, the effect of that difference is likely to be relatively minor.
That being the case, we'll give you another one: 433-535. Those are the numbers of turnovers Baylor and Kentucky, respectively, have coughed up over the course of the season. In their December meeting, Kentucky gave up 23 turnovers, but forced 28 from the typically more sure-handled Lady Bears. The Wildcats also did a far better job of capitalzing on the Bears' miscues, finishing with a 33-17 advantage in points off turnovers.
Analysis: This game could very well be the highlight certainly of this year's Sweet 16, if not of the entire tournament. If you missed the first time these two teams played in a wild game on December 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., you missed an instant classic. Forty minutes wasn’t enough to determine a winner. The two teams played an extra 20 minutes (four overtimes) before the Wildcats finally won, 133-130, in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Kentucky’s win took the shine off an amazing effort from Odyssey Sims. Sims led Baylor, finishing with 47 points and six assists before fouling out in the first overtime. Robertson had 23, Nina Davis 20 and Imani Wright 11.
Kentucky was led by Jennifer O’Neill’s 43 points. Thompson added 20, Stallworth 16, Evans 14 and Goss 13.
Both teams like to get up and down the floor, so expect this first game Saturday to be an old-fashioned, run-and-gun type affair. A combined nine players fouled out in the game, seven from Baylor and two from Kentucky. The only Bears starter still left at the end of the fourth overtime was Makenzie Robertson and she had four fouls at the game’s conclusion.
The last time they met, two factors governed the outcome: turnovers, or more precisely, the ability to capitalize on them, and depth. Kentucky held a decided advantage in both points off turnovers (33-17), and bench points (62-30). The latter proved all the more important because a combined nine players fouled out in the game, seven from Baylor and two from Kentucky. The only Bears' starter still left at the end of the fourth overtime was Makenzie Robertson and she had four fouls at the game’s conclusion.
Here is a breakdown of how the teams match-up.
Guards: Naismith, Wade Trophy and Nancy Lieberman Award finalist Odyssey Sims leads the show for coach Kim Mulkey’s Bears. Sims, the winner of this season's Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award (essentially, the Naismith trophy for guards) averages 28.5 points, 4.6 assists and just shy of two steals per game and Baylor’s offense starts with her. She has managed to keep Baylor at the top of the Big 12 and among the nation's elite women's teams, despite the loss of Brittney Griner and roughly 80 percent of last year's firepower. Niya Johnson (5.1 ppg, 6.6 apg) and Makenzie Robertson complement Sims. Robertson, Mulkey's daughter, who has waited in the wings before finally getting her chance to start this season, is something of a wild card. She averages 7.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and a little less than two assists per game, but she is a big-game player, known to exploded for as many as 18 points or 10 rebounds in close games against major rivals.
Kentucky also uses a three-guard lineup of Goss (10.1 ppg, 1.3 apg, 1.1 spg), Thompson (8.8 ppgs, 3.0 apg, 1.1 spg) and Evans (8.3 ppg, 1.6 apg, 1.0 spg). None of these players, individually, rivals the skill level of 5-8 Baylor's All-Everything, Sims; together, they come much closer. So if one were evaluating only one lead guard versus the other (though the Baylor offense runs through Sims, a combo guard, Johnson plays more of the classic point guard's distributor role for Baylor), Baylor would win this one hands down. But when you factor in the rest of the backcourt, as well as defense (Kentucky thrives on its persistent pressure and trapping-and-hedging guard play), this one becomes much closer.
Advantage: Moderate, Baylor.
Forwards and centers: Kentucky's bigs are good, but Baylor's, and the freshman Davis in particular, are better. In their previous meeting, Baylor controlled the paint and the backboards, with a 72-58 advantage in points in the paint and a 68-56 lead in rebounding (28-19 on the offensive boards), although only a a minor edge (21-19) in second-chance points.
Bench: Baylor -- Imani Wright - freshman guard (5.5 ppg, 1.7 rbg, 14.1 mpg); Kristina Higgins (4.2 pgg, 4.0 rbg, 13.3 mpg)
Kentucky -- Jennifer O'Neill - junior guard (12.7 ppg, 2.3 rbg, 2.5 apg, 24.1 mpg); Azia Bishop - junior post (5.4 ppg, 5.4 rbg, 15.9 mpg); Makayla Epps - freshman guard (4.5 ppg, 1.5 apg, 11.4 mpg)
Advantage: Huge -- Kentucky. First off the bench for Kentucky is O'Neill, the Wildcats' leading scorer. Kentucky turns to its bench early and often to feed its pressure defense.
Offense: Expect a shootout. Quite apart from their record-breaking head-to-head battle in December, Baylor led the Big 12 in scoring offense this season, putting up 83.8 points per game, while Kentucky led the SEC with 81.6. Baylor also led its league in field-goal percentage (.443); Kentucky ranked in the low-middle of the SEC pack in this category with 39.7-percent field-goal shooting. Both teams turn frequently to the three: Kentucky is, by a narrow margin, the better 3-point shooting team, having knocked down 189 of its 552 long-ball attempts (.342) on the season; Baylor netted 190 of its 569 shots (.334) from downtown.
Both teams like to run the floor, although an up-tempo game is more important to Kentucky than to Baylor, which is far more comfortable in the half court. Baylor fuels its transition game primarily off its superior rebounding, while Kentucky looks more to forced turnovers to get the fast break going. Look for Baylor to try to slow tempo and prioritize sound ball-handling in this game, as in their previous meeting, Kentucky used its success in forcing Baylor turnovers to help themselves not only to a significant advantage in points off turnovers but also to an 8-0 edge in fast break points, despite being significantly out-rebounded by the Bears.
Advantage: Slight, to Baylor.
Defense: Both teams are excellent on the defensive side of the ball, in part because both coaches make defense a priority. That said, Mitchell's trademark "Forty Minutes of Dread," was a much bigger deal last season than it is this year, precisely because he has more firepower at his disposal. This year, Kentucky dropped to 11th in scoring defense, giving up 67.8 points to defenders on average, but thanks to its upgraded offense, that still made for a league third-best +13.7 in scoring margin. Baylor was fifth in the Big 12 in scoring defense, yielding 62 points per game on average for the league's No. 1 scoring margin of +21.9. The Lady Bears also ranked atop the Big 12 in field-goal percentage defense (.361) and second in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.279). By comparison, Kentucky came ninth in the SEC, allowing opponents 39.7 percent from the field, but ranked third in the league when it came to defending the 3-point arc, allowing opponents just 28.9 percent 3-point field-goal shooting.
Advantage: Baylor, but not by as much as the raw numbers might indicate. Both the Big 12 and the SEC are dominant leagues. However, Baylor achieved its stats against a Big 12 field that was not quite as strong this season as it has been in recent years, while Kentucky's numbers came against an SEC that showed much greater competitive parity from roughly the middle through the top of the conference.
Coaching: Both these coaches know how to get the most out of their players; both are excellent tacticians. Mulkey has guided Baylor to two national titles and, this season, to its sixth-straight Sweet 16 appearance, while Mitchell has Kentucky in the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row and the fourth time in the last five years, but has never gone the distance. Mulkey knows what it takes to win a national title; Mitchell has his program on the verge of taking the next step.
Advantage: Slight, to Baylor.
Intangibles: Even though it came in December, Kentucky’s win over Baylor in what essentially amounted to a home game for the Bears is a huge confidence boost for the Wildcats, who had been blown off the floor by Baylor in Waco a year previously. It erases any intimidation Kentucky might have entering the game. The Wildcats know they can beat Baylor. The question is, can they do it a second time. On the other hand, Kentucky lost a heartbreakingly close final to Tennessee, to finish as runner up in the SEC Tournament, while Baylor took home both its regular-season and conference tournament titles yet again, and entered the NCAA Tournament on a roll.
Prediction: Baylor, in a tight and highly physical contest that without question will be the game to watch in this year's Sweet 16. Both teams have proven themselves all season to be among the nation’s best; each has suffered losses, but, though Kentucky has had more of them, for both teams they have come at the hands of the nation's elite. It’s going to boil down to which team makes the fewer mistakes.
This game is really too close to call, as evidenced by the four overtimes it took to declare a winner in December's meeting. But if forced to choose, it says here that asking Kentucky to beat Baylor twice in one season might be too much to ask.
Game Two: (5) Oklahoma State (25-8) @ (1) Notre Dame (34-0)
Where: Purcell Pavilion, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.
When: Saturday, March 29, 2:30 p.m. EDT.
Coaches: Muffet McGraw (Notre Dame); Jim Littell (Oklahoma State).
How they got there: Notre Dame – Defeated 16th-seed Robert Morris, 93-42, in the opener; defeated ninth-seed Arizona State, 84-67, in the second round.
Oklahoma State – Defeated 12th seed Florida Gulf Coast 61-60 in overtime in the opening round; defeated fourth-seed Purdue, 73-66, in the Round of 32.
All-time series: First Meeting.
Probable starting lineups: Notre Dame – Natalie Achonwa, forward (14.5 ppg, 7.5 rbg)
Ariel Braker, forward (4.1 ppg., 4.9 rbg)
Lindsey Allen, guard (6.2 ppg)
Kayla McBride, guard (17.4 ppg, 5.3 rbg)
Jewell Loyd, guard (18.4 ppg, 6.3 rbg, 2.3 apg, 1.6 spg).
Oklahoma State – Liz Donohoe, forward (11.2 ppg, 6.1 rebounds)
Kendra Suttles, post (7.6 ppg, 5.1 rbg)
LaShawn Jones, post (9.2 ppg., 5.6 rbg)
Tiffany Bias, guard (13.8 ppg., 6.1 apg)
Brittney Martin, guard (12.0 ppg, 8.8 rbg, 2.1 spg)
Analysis: Top-seeded and undefeated Notre Dame’s immediate goal from the moment the tournament was drawn was simple – win twice and get back home to Purcell Pavilion for the regional. Mission accomplished. Of course, in the bigger picture, this is a team, who, having come so close so often in recent years, only to be disappointed, won't settle for anything less than a national championship. In that sense, the pressure is still very much on for the Fighting Irish.
Appearing in the Sweet 16 for the fifth straight year, Notre Dame rolled to an easy victory over 16th-seed Robert Morris in the opening round, and then overcame a sluggish first half to beat a good Arizona State team Monday night.
Awaiting the Fighting Irish Saturday afternoon is an Oklahoma State team that escaped an early knockout by a whisker in round one, and then pulled off an upset over hosting Purdue in the second round to make just the third Sweet-16 appearance in program history.
Here is a breakdown of how the teams match-up.
Guards: Jewell Loyd, Kayla McBride and Lindsey Allen lead a Notre Dame offense that is one of the most potent in the country. McBride, a Nancy Lieberman award finalist who is also on the final ballots for several National Player of the Year awards, and Loyd, a sophomore, who has stepped into the very big shoes of the now-graduated Skylar Diggins and become the team's leading scorer, have been steady all year for Notre Dame, averaging 17.4 and 18.4 points, respectively. Allen, a freshman, adds a quick slasher and committed defender to the starting rotation in the backcourt; the youngster is second in assists (3.85 per game) only to McBride (3.91) and owns a marginally better assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0:1 for Allen, as compared to 1.9:1 for McBride), though at 6.2 points per game, she lacks a comparable scoring punch.
Their ability to read the defense and find the open shooters has made it tough for defenses to shut down Notre Dame’s offense. All three are also strong defenders (you don't get much time on the floor for the Irish if you aren't), combining for a little more than four steals per outing.
Tiffany Bias anchors the Oklahoma State backcourt, the team's leading scorer at 13.8 points per game. She is also the catalyst for much of the offensive production of her teammates, personally responsible for more than 43 percent (200) of the Cowgirls' 462 assists this season, and averaging more than six dimes per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 1.8:1.
However, Bias was injured (ankle) in OSU's second-round win over Purdue on Monday, however, and after staying down for several minutes had to be carried off the floor to the locker room. After being exampled and having the ankle taped, Bias returned late in the game but required assistance from teammates even during the postgame celebrations. Bias has said she expects to be "fine" by Saturday's game in South Bend after several days to ice and rehab the ankle, and a team spokesman informed Full Court that Bias will play on Saturday. But for Coach Jim Littell’s Cowgirls to have a chance, Bias must be bettern than "good to go"; she needs to be at, or extemely close to 100 percent.
Brittney Martin is the second guard in OSU's three-post starting rotation. The Cowgirls' second-leading scorer at 12 points per game, she is also her team's leading rebounder, which speaks to OSU's approach of rebounding by committee, in which no one who sees significant playing time fails to pull down at least two boards -- and often significantly more -- per game.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
Forwards and centers: Six-three forward Natalie Achonwa, a senior and an honorable mention All-American, has been a staple on the Canadian senior women's national team since she was a freshman, improving steadily from year to year. Achonwa is Notre Dame's third double-digit scoring option (14.5 ppg) and its leading rebounder at 7.5 boards per game. She is deadly accurate from short-to-midrange, shooting an impressive 60.2 percent from the field, but has no long-range game. Six-one forward Ariel Braker, a senior, fills out the front court, but averages just 4.1 points and 4.9 rebounds in 17 minutes per game, and tends to be a bit foul prone, given her limited playing time.
The Cowgirls counter with 6-0 forward Liz Donohoe, the Cowgirls' primary 3-point threat, having knocked down 57 of her 141 longballs for the season, for a team-high 40.4-percent accuracy from downtown. Donohoe is also the Big 12's leading free-throw shooter, hitting at an 83.5-percent clip, and is her team's second-leading rebounder at 6.1 boards per game. Six-three junior LaShawn Jones and 6-1 senior Kendra Suttles, both carried on the roster as centers though perhaps a bit undersized for the job, round out the frontcourt. Neither breaks the 10-point mark in scoring on average, nor is either of them responsible for as many as six boards per game.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
Bench: Notre Dame - Michaela Mabrey - 5-10 sophomore guard (9.2 ppg, 2.5 apg, 20.6 mpg); Taya Reimer - 6.3 freshman forward (7.6 ppg, 4.7 rbg, 18.8 mpg); 5-11 junior guard Madison Cable (5.6 ppg, 3.3 rbg, 14.2 mpg)
Oklahoma State - Brittany Atkins - 5-10 freshman guard (7.1 ppg, 18.7 mpg); Roshunda Johnson - 5.7 freshman guard (5.5 ppg, 2.7 rbg, 22.2 mpg); Katelyn Loecker - 6-0 freshman forward (2.0 ppg, 2.7 rbg, 11.2 mpg)
Michaelsa Mabrey accounts for more scoring as a reliever than some of the starting five, and Raemer has progressed well, providing valuable minutes off the bench in her freshman season.
The first three off the bench for the Cowgirls are all freshmen, and all solid utility players. Johnson, in particular, played well in relief of Bias against Purdue.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
Offense: Notre Dame is the No. 2 scoring offense (86.7 ppg) in all of NCAA Division I -- and the No. 1 offense is not in the tournament. From the field, they shoot the ball better than any other team in the country (51.3 percent). And guess what? They also lead the natio in three-point field-goal percentage (41.4 percent). The key to their success is their balance: They move the ball well, more than 63 percent of their 1111 field-goals this season have been assisted (700), and there's not a player on the floor an opponent can afford to leave open. They could be vulnerable to a team that has superior height as well as a strong inside-outside game; that description does not really fit OSU.
The Cowgirls average 70.7 points per game, are reliable from midrange to paint, but apart from Bias and Donohoe, don't have much of a 3-point game, averaging 31.5 percent, as a team, from beyond the arc. Still, they are not to be taken for granted: OSU battled Baylor to a near draw (61-65) in the NCAA championship game, and took them to overtime before falling, 66-69, in one of their two regular-season meetings.
Advantage: Notre Dame
Defense: The Irish give up 60.6 points per game to opponents, whom they allow to shoot 37.4 percent from the floor but only 28.1 percent from beyond the arc. In this department, the Cowgirls are right in there, allowing opponents 59.9 points per game on 36.8-percent field-goal shooting and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Advantage: Even. If forced to choose, we'd have to give it to the Irish thanks to their superior 3-point defense, but then OSU is not a huge 3-point shooting team, so that's unlikely to matter much in this game.
Coaching: Twenty-seven-year head coach Muffet McGraw has turned Notre Dame into one of the elite programs in women’s college basketball. McGraw has one national championship (2011), three trips to the title game, and five visits to the Final Four on an accolade-laden résumé; she is a candidate for this season's National Coach of the Year.
The taciturn Littell, who took over as head coach three years ago under tragic circumstances one game into the season after veteran head coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna were both killed in a plane crash while returning from a recruing visit, did a remarkable job in pulling his shaken team together and guiding them to the WNIT title that year. Last season he led the Cowgirls to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010, and this year has led his team to the Sweet 16. Before his promotion to head coach, Littell had been Budke's right hand in orchestrating a radical turnaround in what had been a flagging Cowgirls' program, helping guide them to NCAA appearances in three out of four seasons after more than a decade of drought.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
Intangibles: Did we mention that little thing called home-court advantage? Notre Dame would be the heavy favorite regardless where this game were played, but in South Bend, where they regularly field some of the biggest crowds in NCAA women's basketball, often out-drawing even the men, they seem all but unbeatable.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Littell said Saturday’s game will be a huge challenge for his team.
“We’re very aware of Notre Dame, how good they are,” Littell said. “They’re very deserving of the No. 2 ranking in the country. They’re just— by watching the film—it’s probably one of the most efficient teams I’ve ever seen. When I’m talking about efficient, they understand the game, they know how to play, they play well with each other, they have great balance between inside outside game, they understand change in defenses. It’s just a really finely tuned machine that really understands how to play the game. They’re very efficient in how they play.”
Against FGCU in the opener, the Cowgirls proved their resilience. After holding their own with some of the best of the Big 12, they're unlikely to come into Saturday's game intimidated. And, unlike Notre Dame, they don't have a perfect record to protect. For many, the Cowgirls have exceeded expectations just by being here. They really have nothing to lose.
For Oklahoma State, it is imperative they weather the early momentum and settle into the game. If Notre Dame gets off to a good start and gets its crowd into the game, it could be a long afternoon for OSU. A good start is critical.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
Prediction: Notre Dame. The big question in this game is whether OSU can contain Notre Dame and answer them if the Irish get on an early run i? Nobody has slowed down the Fighting Irish this season and their depth is among the best in the country. OSU will have to play a near-flawless game, and hope for an off day for the Irish, to pull off the upset.
Elite Eight prediction: It will be a great match-up Monday night as Baylor takes on Notre Dame for the right to go to The Final Four. Baylor has won the last two meetings between the schools, including a win two years ago at Purcell Pavilion.
Odyssey Sims might be the best player on the court, but the depth and experience the Fighting Irish have along with playing at home should be enough to propel Notre Dame to its fourth straight Final Four.
Winner: Notre Dame.