HARTFORD, Connecticut — Quite a few outlets — ours included — wrote last week about the lack of high-quality games the first week of the college basketball season. Men’s college basketball. Because that’s not how things operate on the women’s side. And on Sunday, they showed that off with runway lights.
You want excitement, upsets, down-to-the-wire competition in November? Search for where the women’s games are streaming. There have been so many “upsets” (defined in this case as lower-ranked teams defeating any higher-ranked ones) because the best teams in the nation actually play each other.
The coaches scheduling a talented nonconference slate barely a handful of games into the season are the big winners of the week. Kudos to them for recognizing how beneficial that is to not only their teams, but the sport as a whole.
“There are fewer great teams. And a lot more good teams,” UConn (3-0) head coach Geno Auriemma said Sunday. “Whenever you start to have that, the next thing that happens is those good teams start beating other good teams. So if you’re a top-10 team, but you have flaws, they’re going to show.”
The season tipped off two weeks ago and already we watched the two largely undisputed best teams in the nation face off in a regularly scheduled series. No. 1 South Carolina forced overtime on ABC and took advantage of two bad mistakes by No. 2 Stanford to win, 76-71.
There have been 34 meetings of No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams on the women’s side since 2000 whereas only nine meetings of the same teams on the men’s side, according to the College Poll Archive. Of the women’s games, 21 have been intentionally scheduled as nonconference games compared to six for the men. That’s about one per season versus once every four years.
“I think that what you see in women’s basketball is that teams aren’t afraid to play great competition,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said ahead of the game, via The Mercury News. “Everybody plays each other and I think that’s a great thing.”
The Sunday slate was phenomenal from start to finish. Then-No. 5 UConn handled then-No. 10 NC State, 91-69, in the early afternoon. As it wrapped up, the still unanimous No. 1 and reigning champion South Carolina came back to down Stanford.
"This is what women's basketball is about,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “This game only helps both teams."
It’s something to which the men’s coaches should pay closer attention. Everybody loves March, but there’s no reason some of that excitement can’t be found in November and December.
Loser: The Associated Press Top 25 poll
The Associated Press Top 25 poll took some hits this weekend and that’s a good thing! We should want that and respect it for what it is: good basketball from a wide swath of rising programs.
“It’s a great sign for women’s basketball,” Auriemma said. “I think that now you can’t just walk into the gym and roll it out there and go, yeah, well we’re a top-10 team in the country and we can just roll over [you] because you’re unranked. I think those days are over. I don’t think anybody is good enough to do that. And those other teams are just too good right now.
Listen, let’s be clear. The people who vote in this poll are not the losers here. It’s an incredibly difficult job to rank the best teams out of more than 350 programs at the Division I level. It’s not like a professional league where there are max 32 teams all playing similar opponents. There is plenty of subjectivity that only time will clear up.
And even then, it won’t be crystal clear because only a small grouping of teams have similar schedules. No. 12 LSU (5-0) currently leads the nation averaging 108.8 points per game. Incredible stuff until you see it has played Bellarmine, Mississippi Valley State, Western Carolina, Houston Christian and Northwestern State. Bless their hearts.
UConn took down top-10 opponents in Texas and NC State back-to-back, but even that comes with questions. Texas, still without point guard Rori Harmon, has now lost three in a row and the Wolfpack are quite different than last season’s near-Final Four group.
Loser: Whatever that final 30 seconds of Stanford-South Carolina can be called
Roller coaster? Meltdown? Chaos? Messy? The final 28.8 seconds of overtime was a rough way to end another stellar Stanford vs. South Carolina showdown.
Stanford fouled down two and benefitted when Victaria Saxton missed both. But Laeticia Amihere brought down the rebound for South Carolina to hold possession. The Cardinal did not foul this time, and again got exactly what they wanted when Agnes Emma-Nnopu stripped Kamilla Cardoso. That left a hefty 10 seconds on the clock and a slim two-point deficit.
It was short-lived. Stanford gave it back on a five-second violation on the inbound, fouled with 5.6 seconds left and were still alive on two more missed free throws by Brea Beal. Sophomore forward Kiki Iriafen, who subbed in for Cameron Brink after the junior fouled out, secured the rebound. But she called a timeout the Cardinal didn’t have, essentially ending the game by giving South Carolina two free throws and possession.
"It was very disappointing to have the lead that we had and not finish the job," VanDerveer said.
It was a thrilling game, the first of four on ABC this season. And it was a great, tight overtime that featured a Haley Jones lob inside to Brink, a Bree Hall 3-pointer to push the lead to four and one of Brink’s four blocks. We’ll chalk the final seconds up to it being the second week of the season.
Winner: Kiki Jefferson, James Madison
All the usual suspects put up big days this weekend. UConn’s Azzi Fudd (32 points, again), Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (33 points), LSU’s Angel Reese (23 points, 19 rebounds), Maryland’s Diamond Miller (32 points), Notre Dame’s Olivia Miles (13 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds) and Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist (41 points, 16 rebounds).
James Madison’s Kiki Jefferson had a similarly strong day. The senior guard put up a 30-point, 10-rebound double-double in a 76-65 loss to No. 13 North Carolina. She also added five assists and hit four of the team’s season-high 10 3-pointers.
The Tar Heels (4-0), voted to finish third in the ACC, were on upset notice early. James Madison (3-2) led for much of the first half, including 34-30 at the break, and were within five with three minutes to play.
Jefferson has scored at least 20 points in all five games and is averaging 22.8 points, eight rebounds and 1.5 steals. She’s hitting 62.75% of shots and is 11-of-19 (57.9%) from beyond the arc. Coming into the season, Jefferson was a 34% shooter from 3.
What to watch this week
The full guide to Thanksgiving week tournament viewing can be found here. Some highlights:
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 18 Oregon, 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU — North Carolina is a favorite in the ACC, while Oregon is a different team than expected after Sedona Prince underwent surgery.
DePaul vs. No. 14 Maryland, 11 a.m. ET — DePaul sophomore Aneesah Morrow is averaging a nation-best 30.3 ppg in Division I.
Belmont vs. No. 23 Villanova, 1:30 p.m. ET — Two strong programs showing out early. Villanova senior Siegrist is averaging 29 points and 13.3 rebounds through four games.
No. 3 UConn vs. Duke, 6 p.m. ET — It’s UConn and Duke.
No. 9 Iowa vs. Oregon State, 8:30 p.m. ET — The Hawkeyes are running into early hurdles despite Clark’s 26.8 points per game.
Princeton at No. 19 Texas, 2 p.m. ET — Texas needs Harmon back to right the ship. If that doesn’t happen before the Tigers, it could be another notch in the wrong column.
AP Top 25 Poll (as of Nov. 21)
1. South Carolina (4-0)
2. Stanford (5-1)
3. UConn (3-0)
4. Ohio State (4-0)
5. Iowa State (4-0)
6. Indiana (5-0)
7. Notre Dame (4-0)
8. North Carolina (4-0)
9. Iowa (4-1)
10. Louisville (4-1)
11. Virginia Tech (3-0)
12. LSU (5-0)
13. North Carolina State (4-1)
14. Maryland (4-1)
15. Arizona (4-0)
16. Creighton (4-0)
17. Utah (4-0)
18. Oregon (3-0)
19. Texas (1-3)
20. UCLA (5-0)
21. Baylor (3-1)
22. Michigan (4-0)
23t. Tennessee (2-3)
23t. Villanova (4-0)
25. Kansas State (5-0)
Others receiving votes: Oklahoma 69, Marquette 65, Gonzaga 33, Kansas 11, Drake 8, South Florida 5, Duke 5, Ole Miss 4, South Dakota State 4, Princeton 3, Nebraska 1, Georgia 1