What we learned: Crooks scores 40, LSU wins 'ugly' and chalk dominates Day 1


LSU won “ugly” (Kim Mulkey’s words). Middle Tennessee rocked the chalk. And Audi Crooks made sure the country knows this season’s highly lauded freshman class includes a representative from Iowa State.

Crooks scored 40 points to help the No. 7 seed Cyclones rally from a 20-point deficit — the second-biggest comeback in women’s NCAA tournament history — and eliminate 10th-seeded Maryland.

How historic was Crooks’ performance? Her 40 points are tied for the second most in an NCAA tournament debut. And they were the most by a Big 12 player in the tournament since Brittney Griner in 2011. Crooks is also the first player in the tournament’s history with 40 points on 90% shooting. She was 18-for-20 from the field.

While Crooks seemingly couldn’t miss, Mulkey said defending champion LSU’s 70-60 win over Rice earlier Friday was “selfish” and “ugly.”

“That was a bad performance today. It was a lot of selfish play today, and it starts with me on getting them ready,” said Mulkey, whose Tigers committed a season-high 24 turnovers. “The goal is to survive and advance. And we did do that with an ugly performance.

“We better fix it before we play Middle Tennessee.”

Chalk held Friday except for one game: 11th-seeded Middle Tennessee eliminated No. 6 seed Louisville. The Tigers will play the Blue Raiders on Sunday in the second round.

We broke down all of Friday’s first-round action. The first round resumes Saturday at noon ET (ESPN), with all 16 games on ESPN networks and the ESPN App, including an ABC doubleheader (beginning at 1 p.m. ET) featuring both Iowa and UConn.

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Can Audi Crooks continue this dominance? It’s hard to imagine the freshman being any more dominant than she was against Maryland. For all 34 minutes she was on the floor, the 6-foot-3 Crooks planted herself on the low block and finished over and over. Her career-high 40 points helped the Cyclones erase a 20-point second-quarter deficit — the second-largest comeback in NCAA tournament history.

Crooks was 18-of-20 from the field, including a perfect 10-for-10 in the second half. While it was the best performance of the opening day of the first round — and Crooks is just a freshman — it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. She is averaging 27 points in her past five games, and her only single-digit scoring game of the season was the opener, the first game of her college career.

What it means for Iowa State: The bitter pill of losing to Toledo in the first round a year ago, a disappointing end to Ashley Joens’ career, gets a little sweeter with this win. This also feels like the national unveiling of a career for Crooks that could rival what Joens did in Ames. While this Iowa State team is driven by five freshmen, senior point guard Emily Ryan has been a fixture. Her 18 points and 14 assists were overshadowed, but they were huge. Next up will likely be Stanford, and Ryan will be the best guard on the court. Everyone should be excited about the prospect of Crooks’ matchup with All-American Cameron Brink, the three-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

What it means for Maryland: This loss hits harder given how brilliant the Terps were in the first half, when they scored 52 points and shot 60.2% from the field. That percentage dropped to 34.2 in the second half, and after making nine 3-pointers in the opening two quarters, Maryland went just 2-for-11 from deep after the break. A career-high 29 points on 7-for-8 3-point shooting by Allie Kubek went for naught.

Injuries marred this season for Maryland, but a late-season rally was encouraging. However, losing in the first round for the first time under Brenda Frese in her 22 years in College Park will make for a tough offseason. — Charlie Creme

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1:36

Mulkey calls LSU’s win over Rice ‘selfish’ and ‘ugly’

Kim Mulkey calls LSU’s performance in the NCAA first-round regional vs. Rice “selfish” and “ugly.”

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How concerned should LSU be after having a difficult time pulling away from Rice? Sometimes good teams can be a little shaky after time off from games, and it looked that way for LSU in the first round Friday. The Tigers had 24 turnovers — yikes — and Angel Reese and Hailey Van Lith were a combined 2-of-12 from the field. But Reese did her thing on the boards — she had 19 of the Tigers’ 42 rebounds. Maybe this game got the butterflies and butterfingers out of LSU’s system.

What it means for LSU: When the bracket was released, everyone noticed that No. 6 seed Louisville — Van Lith’s school before she transferred — was slotted to face LSU in the second round. That would have been some drama. But the Cardinals didn’t make it that far; they were upset 71-69 by No. 11 Middle Tennessee.

What it means for Rice: The Owls saved their best for last this season, winning the American Athletic Conference tournament as a No. 10 seed and then making LSU sweat to the finish in the NCAA tournament’s first round. Junior forward Malia Fisher led Rice this season in points, rebounds, steals and blocked shots.

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0:35

MTSU upsets Louisville for first tournament win in 17 years

Middle Tennessee hangs on to upset Louisville for its first women’s NCAA tournament win since 2007.

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Does Middle Tennessee have Louisville’s number? Just three games into the first round we already have our first big upset. And Middle Tennessee beating Louisville wasn’t just surprising, it was shocking how the Blue Raiders did it, erasing an 18-point first-half deficit. They dominated the Cardinals in the second half, outscoring them 44-31.

Coach Jeff Walz was understandably nervous when his Cardinals drew the Blue Raiders in the first round. Last year MTSU beat Louisville 67-49. Many of those Blue Raiders are back, including Conference USA player of the year Savannah Wheeler, who was the catalyst for the comeback with 20 of her 22 points in the second half. She also helped foul out Louisville guards Nina Rickards and Jayda Curry. Foul trouble was an issue for Louisville the entire game and MTSU shot 33 free throws.

What it means for Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders equaled the third-biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history, erasing the deficit that peaked at 18 at the 4:18 mark of the second quarter. This also ends a nine-game NCAA tournament losing streak for the Blue Raiders, and the program’s first win in March Madness since 2007.

Besides the big performance from Wheeler and 22 points from Jalynn Gregory, who kept Middle Tennessee in the game with a big first half, an 11-point, 12-rebound, 3-block performance from 6-foot-6 Anastasiia Boldyreva is a good sign — especially with the big frontline of LSU’s Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow the likely next opponent.

What it means for Louisville: The Cardinals, who had made five consecutive Elite Eight appearances, lost for the first time in the first round under Walz. Offensive consistency has been a problem all season for Louisville, and 33% second-half shooting with only one 3-pointer made after halftime contributed to the Louisville collapse.

With the likelihood of losing four starters, Walz will probably have to hit the transfer portal hard again for the third straight offseason. — Charlie Creme

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Kiki Irafen just beats the halftime buzzer for Stanford

Kiki Irafen just beats the halftime buzzer for Stanford

How does Stanford avoid a repeat of 2023? A year ago the No. 1-seeded Cardinal had an even easier time in the first round against Sacred Heart than they had Friday against the Spartans. Then disaster struck two days later when Stanford was held to 49 points in an upset loss to Ole Miss at Maples Pavilion. In that game, Stanford had more turnovers (21) than field goals (17).

The good news is that Iowa State plays a different brand of defense than Ole Miss. In fact, only two teams in the country force fewer turnovers than the Cyclones. Stanford’s length, particularly that of Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen, should have an easier time limiting the post entry passes to Audi Crooks than Maryland did. Crooks repeating her 40-point performance against the Cardinal seems unlikely.

What it means for Stanford: For the 23rd consecutive NCAA tournament, Stanford advanced to the second round. Friday’s win over Norfolk State was done in the business-like fashion expected of a No. 2 seed playing at home. The Cardinal, led by a combined 34 points and 24 rebounds from Brink and Iriafen, dominated the glass and the paint to beat the smaller Spartans from start to finish. The next step is to return to the Sweet 16, where Stanford had advanced for 17 NCAA tournaments in a row before falling short last year.

What it means for Norfolk State: The Spartans have plenty to build on between Friday’s respectable showing and three straight NCAA tournament trips. With Diamond Johnson and Kierra Wheeler just completing their junior seasons, Norfolk State’s dominance in the MEAC should continue. — Charlie Creme

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1:38

Oregon State Beavers vs. Eastern Washington Eagles – Game Highlights

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How did Oregon State overcome its slow start? Turnovers were the initial culprit for the Beavers, as they coughed up the ball eight times in the first quarter. Though they turned it over five times in the fourth, they cleaned things up for the most part in the middle two periods. Defensively, they locked in as the game went on: Eastern Washington shot 8-for-15 in the first quarter versus 13-for-55 the final 30 minutes.

The Beavers also took advantage of their depth, scoring 28 bench points with freshman Dominika Paurova accounting for 17 points (3-for-4 from 3) and three assists off the bench.

Star center Raegan Beers (19 points, 9 rebounds) sat the fourth quarter after going down with an apparent ankle injury but returned to the bench to watch the game close. She and Paurova scored or assisted on 46 of Oregon State’s 73 points.

What it means for Oregon State: Coach Scott Rueck will want to clean up his team’s 19 turnovers as the Beavers head into the rest of March. But remember, this young team has very little NCAA tournament experience (Talia von Oelhoffen was the only Oregon State player on Rueck’s squad that last made the Big Dance in 2021). So getting that initial game/win over with can only help as the Beavers learn how to play on the sport’s biggest stage and look to make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.

Beers’ health is the top concern, both for Sunday’s second-round game and for the remainder of the tournament. But the sophomore seemed in good spirits after the game and indicated it’s nothing serious.

What it means for Eastern Washington: The Eagles threw the first punch against the Beavers, and though they let the game slip away a bit, they fought to the end and didn’t let the score get embarrassing despite playing in a tough sold-out environment in Corvallis. It’s still a huge positive that the program returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987 and put together a 29-win season while clinching Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles. — Alexa Philippou

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1:40

Colorado Buffaloes vs. Drake Bulldogs – Game Highlights

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How good was Colorado’s interior scoring? The Buffaloes scored a season-high 54 points in the paint Friday, led by center Aaronette Vonleh’s 18. They also outrebounded the Bulldogs 39-18. All of this is important heading into a Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas State and center Ayoka Lee, who defeated Portland in the first round.

The Buffs had a tough February and early March, losing six games — five against ranked teams. But Friday’s victory against a Drake team that always executes well has to give Colorado confidence. On Sunday, Colorado will face former Big Eight/Big 12 rival Kansas State. After this season, the Buffs and Wildcats will be back in the same conference again, as Colorado returns to the Big 12.

What it means for Colorado: The Buffs made the Sweet 16 last season for the first time in 20 years; now they are trying to do it two seasons in a row. It has been a longer drought for the Wildcats, whose last Sweet 16 appearance was 2002.

What it means for Drake: The Bulldogs won the Missouri Valley regular-season and conference tournament titles, the latter on a buzzer-beating shot by junior Anna Miller. Drake hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2002 when the Bulldogs made the Sweet 16, but the program keeps giving itself chances at the Big Dance. — Michael Voepel

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1:43

Baylor Bears vs. Vanderbilt Commodores – Game Highlights

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How can Baylor use this win to upset Virginia Tech? Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech pose different problems. Defense is the crux of the Commodores’ identity, while the Hokies are high-powered offensively, scoring 92 points in their NCAA tournament opener Friday against Marshall. But coach Nicki Collen has to like how her team handled the Commodores’ pressure and instead were the ones who made Vanderbilt uncomfortable, forcing 21 giveaways and holding the Dores to 3-for-17 shooting from 3.

Without 6-foot-6 Elizabeth Kitley (ACL), the Hokies lose their matchup advantage against the undersized Baylor, though 6-5 freshman Clara Strack had a great game against the Thundering Herd with 17 points. With the Hokies relying even more on their 3-point shooting, the Bears will have to do what they’ve done well all season and limit their opponent’s potency from the 3-point line.

Offensively, the Bears spread the wealth with four players in double figures and three others with at least seven points, altogether hitting 9 of 21 3-point attempts. Sophomore Bella Fontleroy’s 19 points (four 3s) are two shy of her career high. Baylor is now 11-0 on the season when it scores 80-plus points; if the Bears can keep their offense going against Virginia Tech, they have a good shot at the upset.

What it means for Baylor: Three years at Baylor for Collen, three berths in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Now an opportunity awaits: Can the Bears take down the fourth-seeded, short-handed Hokies? A Sweet 16 appearance would be huge for a program that’s still looking to get back to the upper echelon of national contenders since Kim Mulkey left for LSU.

What it means for Vanderbilt: The 2023-24 campaign by far has been successful for Shea Ralph. Vanderbilt appeared in its first NCAA tournament since 2014, won its first game in the event since 2013 with Wednesday’s First Four victory, and overall earned its most wins since 2011-12 (23). While Jordyn Cambridge will be out of eligibility, Ralph can continue to build around Iyana Moore and Sacha Washington, plus incoming top-10 recruit Mikayla Blakes. — Alexa Philippou

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Karly Weathers gets the and-1

Karly Weathers gets the and-1.

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What did we learn about Alabama? Taking down high-scoring Florida State is a remarkable result, especially with first-team All-SEC selection Sarah Ashlee Barker limited to 11 minutes due to foul trouble, and starter Jessica Timmons out for the year due to an injury she suffered in the SEC tournament. In a season defined by stellar freshman performances, Essence Cody added her name to the list with the first 20-point, 10-rebound game of her career, posting season highs of 20 points and 14 rebounds. She wasn’t the only one to help pick up the slack, as sophomore Karly Weathers added a season-high 18 points and seniors Loyal McQueen (13 points) and Aaliyah Nye (18) finished in double figures.

Ta’Niya Latson and Makayla Timpson combined for 48 points for Florida State, and while the Seminoles made a fourth-quarter run to pull within two, it wasn’t enough to get over the hump. Allowing Alabama to shoot 51% from the field while shooting just 40% themselves was simply too much to overcome, even as they were able to successfully turn over the Crimson Tide (20 turnovers).

What it means for Alabama: The Crimson Tide — appearing in back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time this century — advance to the second round for the second time in four years and are angling for their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1998. This sort of gritty team win should give them confidence heading into a matchup against 1-seed Texas, even if they have a tall task ahead.

What it means for Florida State: In its 11th straight NCAA tournament, Florida State has now lost five straight NCAA tournament games and last reached the second round in 2019. Appearing in her first NCAA tournament game, Latson finished the season with 707 points, second most in program history and three shy of the Florida State single-season record. While Sara Bejedi is a fifth-year senior, Brooke Wyckoff can continue to build around Latson, a sophomore, and Timpson, a junior, moving forward. — Alexa Philippou

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1:44

Kansas State outlasts Portland to advance to the second round

Kansas State takes care of Portland at home to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

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Is Kansas State’s second half a reason for concern? After being blown out by NC State in the second round in 2022 and not making the NCAA tournament last year, a good start for the Wildcats was important. They were on the verge of a blowout with a lead as big as 20 early and a 25-10 first-quarter advantage. But the Pilots never went away and outscored Kansas State over the final three quarters. A big second half from Gabby Gregory — 14 of her season-high 22 points came after halftime — kept Portland from getting any closer than nine the rest of the game. But Kansas State never could completely pull away.

What it means for Kansas State: The good: Ayoka Lee had 21 points and nine rebounds and the Wildcats shot 51.0% from the field. The troubling: The smaller Pilots were able to get inside consistently and outscored Kansas State 44-32 in the paint. Potential second-round opponent Colorado is much bigger than Portland. Shoring up the interior defense and better penetration prevention might be imperative if Kansas State plans on getting a third game against Iowa in the Sweet 16.

What it means for Portland: A second straight NCAA tournament appearance and a better showing this year than last (a 67-45 loss to UCLA) puts the Portland program in a good place. Having leading scorers Emme Shearer and Maisie Burnham back gives the Pilots a chance at three NCAA tournament trips in a row. — Charlie Creme

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1:43

Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Marshall Thundering Herd – Game Highlights

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How far can the Hokies go without Elizabeth Kitley? If Friday is any indication, things might not be so dire in Blacksburg. Certainly, Marshall doesn’t offer the same resistance that Virginia Tech will face the rest of the NCAA tournament, but the Hokies’ dominance was impressive. Eight different players scored, including 28 points from the bench.

The most encouraging performance came from Matilda Ekh, who scored 21 points on 5-for-7 shooting from 3-point range after not scoring in Virginia Tech’s past three games. Kitley’s 22.8 points and 11.4 rebounds per game are obviously missed, but her replacement, freshman Clara Strack, scored 17 points, on 7-for-7 shooting from the field, and had four blocked shots.

What it means for Virginia Tech: Setting a program record for the most points scored in an NCAA tournament game without Kitley and with Georgia Amoore only scoring nine points in 20 minutes? It’s not only remarkable, it’s encouraging.

The matchup with either Baylor or Vanderbilt will look considerably different, but the Hokies haven’t lost a game at Cassell Coliseum since December 2022, so Virginia Tech might still have an advantage — even without its All-American center who suffered a torn ACL in the regular-season finale.

What this means for Marshall: Marshall’s style of pressing and 3-point shooting (41 3-point attempts Friday) set this team apart from the rest of the Sun Belt. First-year coach Kim Caldwell turned around the program: The Thundering Herd enjoyed just their fourth 20-win season. — Charlie Creme

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Madison Booker sends the shot away

Madison Booker sends the shot away

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Can Madison Booker really be doing this? In December, Booker was a freshman forward averaging just over 11 points a game but still trying to figure out her place in college basketball. Now she’s the Texas point guard who set a program record for most assists in an NCAA tournament game with 14 against Drexel.

When Rori Harmon was lost for the season with a knee injury just after Christmas, Booker’s basketball role changed. But because she embraced it and delivered, the Longhorns never veered off course. They are rolling into the second round and have 31 wins, their most since 2016, when Texas reached the Elite Eight.

What it means for Texas: This was exactly the performance a No. 1 seed is expected to produce. The Longhorns tightened their grip on Drexel early in the second quarter, holding the Dragons to only eight points over those 10 minutes to take a 20-point lead at the half.

That allowed Vic Schaefer to use his bench liberally. Booker and Shaylee Gonzales, who had a team-high 21 points, only had to play 27 minutes. Center Taylor Jones scored 18 points in just 18 minutes. The Longhorns should be plenty rested for Round 2 at home against either Alabama or Florida State.

What it means for Drexel: Getting to the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years was the big win for the Dragons after a seventh-place finish in the CAA. They likely won’t be the preseason favorite in the league next season, but leading scorer Amaris Baker is just a junior, — Charlie Creme

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Raven Johnson drains nice jumper for South Carolina

Raven Johnson owns the court and takes it to the rim for South Carolina.

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Did the Gamecocks struggle at all without Kamilla Cardoso? The short answer is no — and they weren’t expected to. The 52-point margin was just a touch closer than their 99-29 win over Presbyterian in December. South Carolina closed as a 55.5-point favorite on ESPN BET, the largest point spread for an NCAA tournament game since at least 2021. Though the Gamecocks didn’t cover, it was still a dominant victory.

On Friday, they did it without 6-foot-7 center Cardoso and 6-foot guard Bree Hall. Cardoso was unavailable because of a suspension after being ejected from the SEC championship game on March 10 for fighting. Hall was held out for precautionary reasons, according to a South Carolina spokesperson.

None of it mattered. The Gamecocks played all eight available players and cruised to victory. Forward Chloe Kitts came off the bench and tied a career high with 21 points. She was 9-for-9 from the field, the most attempts without a miss in the NCAA tournament by a South Carolina player since 1999-2000.

What it means for South Carolina: South Carolina is rolling. The Gamecocks showcased one of the primary reasons they’re favored to raise the trophy in Cleveland: depth. Nine players average at least 14 minutes per game, and no one averages more than 27. As the tournament gets tougher, South Carolina will be rested.

Next up is No. 8 seed North Carolina, which South Carolina beat 65-58 on Nov. 30 in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels will need to dig deep on defense if they hope to pull off an upset. South Carolina’s 65 points in the teams’ first meeting was its season low.

What it means for Presbyterian: The Blue Hose, who moved to Division I in 2007, finishes the season 21-15, after a magical run to the NCAA tournament and a win over Sacred Heart in the First Four. — Katie Barnes

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1:41

Duke Blue Devils vs. Richmond Spiders – Game Highlights

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Can Duke rely on just 20 minutes of good basketball? The up-and-down season for the Blue Devils played itself out in one single NCAA tournament game. Duke scored just five second-quarter points and trailed by nine at halftime. Then the Blue Devils completely turned it around in the second half. Most notably, they took over on the boards, outrebounding the Spiders 26-7 in the final 20 minutes while outsourcing them 44 -26.

Duke also went from making 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the first half to hitting 6 of 11 from deep in the second.

What it means for Duke: Whatever Kara Lawson said in the locker room, particularly about aggressiveness, might become as famous as her “Handle Hard Better” speech. Richmond’s shooting percentage went from 58% in the first half to 38% in the second. That is more in line with the 36.4 field goal percentage Duke allowed during the season, which was ranked 19th in the country.

This marks the 25th straight NCAA tournament in which Duke has participated that the Blue Devils won at least one game. They just don’t lose in the first round. The challenge gets significantly greater in the second round in a matchup with Ohio State playing on the Buckeyes’ home floor.

Reigan Richardson kept Duke afloat in the first half (13 points) and finished with a game-high 25 points. She will need more help in the opening 20 minutes against the Buckeyes.

What it means for Richmond: This was a solid showing for the Spiders, the Atlantic 10’s lone representative, making their first appearance since 2005. The program is still looking for its first NCAA tournament win, but with leading scorer Maggie Doogan (15.4 PPG) back, Richmond could have another opportunity in 2025. — Charlie Creme

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0:16

Rebeka Mikulasikova turns defense into offense

Taylor Thierry’s block leads to an easy Rebeka Mikulasikova bucket on Ohio State.

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Is Ohio State’s press ready for prime time? The Buckeyes’ full-court press is its signature. The press got them to the Elite Eight last season and was especially effective in a Sweet 16 upset of UConn.

It delivered again against the Black Bears, forcing 22 turnovers. Ohio State scored 24 points off Maine turnovers and was never seriously threatened by the America East champs.

Six of the Buckeyes’ 11 steals came from Big Ten defensive player of the year Celeste Taylor, who also had six rebounds and five assists to go with 12 points. Taylor’s 3-pointer late in the first quarter gave Ohio State the lead it never relinquished.

What it means for Ohio State: This had to feel good after losses in the regular-season finale at Iowa and in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament to Maryland cost the Buckeyes a No. 1 seed.

It’s a good sign that its press worked like it should, creating opportunities. Ohio State’s defense was ineffective against the Hawkeyes and Terps, allowing a combined 175 points in those two games.

Maine shooting 52% and scoring 28 points in the paint should be a slight concern, but this was also a game in which Ohio State built a double-figure lead with 6:24 left in the second quarter. The margin never got below 10 points again. Nine players scored and four hit double figures, led by Jacy Sheldon’s 19 points, another good sign with solid defensive teams in Duke and UConn potentially on the horizon.

What it means for Maine: This was the fifth time in seven years that the Black Bears won the America East regular-season title, but just their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2019. No one outside of Orono, Maine, expected a win, but the Black Bears played well enough to make Ohio State work for most of the 40 minutes.

Losing one of the best players in program history in Anne Simon will be a major blow. Simon twice won conference player and defensive player of the year in the same season, and she scored 25 points against the Buckeyes. But sixth-year coach Amy Vachon has built something, and with the expected return of 2023 America East player of the year Adrianna Smith, who had 11 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists Friday, Maine should be the favorites in the league again. — Charlie Creme

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Deja Kelly heaves a long pass to Alyssa Ustby for UNC bucket

Deja Kelly launches a pass up the court to Alyssa Ustby for a Tar Heels layup.

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Did North Carolina find a new level? The Tar Heels finished seventh in the ACC and lost their first game in the ACC tournament. Those were far below the expectations for a veteran team. For much of Friday’s game — before Michigan State rallied to make it a one-point score in the final minute — this was a different North Carolina team from even two weeks ago. Defense, the one area Courtney Banghart’s team could lean on in a season of offensive inconsistency, was the difference Friday.

The Tar Heels held Michigan State, the second-leading scoring team in the Big Ten behind Iowa, 27 points below its average. The Spartans normally shoot 48.4% from the field. They made only 37.3% on Friday.

Normally a box score stuffer, Alyssa Ustby took it to a new level with 16 points, 17 rebounds and 6 assists. The senior made her first four field goals to give the Tar Heels a 23-10 lead after the first quarter, Michigan’s lowest scoring output in any first quarter this season. North Carolina never trailed.

But the opening game of the NCAA tournament still had some drama with a furious Michigan State comeback. An 11-1 run late in the fourth quarter — North Carolina didn’t make a field goal in the final 3:22 of the game — got the Spartans within 58-56 with five seconds left. But a pair of offensive rebounds on missed free throws, one board by Teonni Key and one by Ustby, closed it out for the Tar Heels, their third straight year winning at least one NCAA tournament game.

What it means for North Carolina: The Tar Heels didn’t anticipate a No. 8 seed when the season started, so Friday’s opening-round win takes a little sting out of an inconsistent year. That North Carolina was able to completely control this one until the final four minutes without a major scoring contribution from leading scorer Deja Kelly (she came in averaging 16.7 PPG) is also a good sign as the Tar Heels head into a likely second-round meeting with South Carolina. Defense led the way, but the play of Ustby and Maria Gakdeng, who led North Carolina with 17 points and also had 10 rebounds, was key.

Kelly finished with 13 points but was only 4-of-10 from the field and 3-of-10 at the free throw line. The Tar Heels’ struggles at the line (8-of-18) was another major factor in Michigan State’s late rally.

Due to its defense, North Carolina can have confidence if the Gamecocks are up next in the second round. The two played earlier in the season and the Tar Heels led at the half and were in the game late. North Carolina held South Carolina to 65 points in a 65-58 loss. Kelly and Ustby combined for 38 points in that Nov. 30 game.

What it means for Michigan State: The disappointment of not getting all the way back after the furious late rally will linger, but when the Spartans look back on this season, it will be deemed a success.

In Robyn Fralick’s first season, Michigan State exceeded all expectations. This was not supposed to be an NCAA tournament team. Her up-tempo style fit the personnel, and the Spartans finished fourth in the Big Ten. Saying goodbye to fifth-year seniors Julia Ayrault and Moira Joiner won’t be easy. They were the team’s top two scorers and led the way against North Carolina. But this season illustrated that Fralick was the right hire and she should be able to build off this in East Lansing. — Charlie Creme



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