UNC, Creighton women making surprising NCAA tourney runs
North Carolina and Creighton didn’t stick to the scripted plans for the Greensboro Region of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
And the Tar Heels and Bluejays hope to continue rocking the boat.
Top overall NCAA Tournament seed South Carolina was expected to be here. Iowa State, too, as a No. 3 seed. Yet the fifth-seeded Tar Heels and 10th-seeded Bluejays made it after winning on the road against higher seeds, making this bracket the only one with half of the top-4 seeds failing to reach the regionals.
“I think for Creighton and some of these mid-majors, it shows that basketball has just never been in a better spot,” Tar Heels coach Courtney Banghart said Thursday. “It’s just, it’s hard to win in March, and there’s way more better teams than when I was getting into the game. All you can do is prove it.”
Banghart, for her part, believes the Tar Heels (25-6) should’ve been a No. 4 seed and hosting opening-round games. Her team has shown she was right, adding to the unpredictability as they enter Friday’s game against the top-seeded Gamecocks (31-2). The Bluejays (22-9) will face the third-seeded Cyclones (28-6).
The winners will meet Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.
“Obviously it’s easy to say when you are one of the (high) seeded teams that advance, but I do think it’s great for the tournament,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said, adding: “Those are things that help at least draw some interest from maybe a little more casual fan base and gets other people excited.”
If the seeds had held, No. 2 seed Iowa and first-team Associated Press All-American Caitlin Clark would’ve been here along with a 4-seed in Arizona that had played for last year’s national title. But the Bluejays edged the Hawkeyes to earn its first Sweet 16 trip, while the Tar Heels blew out the Wildcats.
The other three sites each feature three of the region’s top four seeds.
“I think a lot of programs like Creighton don’t get the as much screen-time and notice as they normally do with other programs just coming into the tournament,” Bluejays sophomore Emma Ronsiek said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say this is an upset for us, but everyone else would say that it’s an upset. And it’s just super cool even thinking about that.”
Some other things to know about the NCAA regional rounds in Greensboro:
The Gamecocks were a wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 poll this year. Wearing that crown and being the hunted hasn’t been a problem for South Carolina.
“Just being No. 1, I don’t think it comes as a burden,” AP first-team All-American Aliyah Boston said. “I think that’s just something special that we’re blessed with the entire season.”
The Gamecocks have wins against six teams still in the field — including 1-seeds Stanford and North Carolina State, and 2-seed Connecticut — though they haven’t played the other three teams in the Greensboro Region.
Expect a lot of 3-pointers in the Creighton-Iowa State matchup.
The Cyclones are ranked second nationally in both 3-point percentage (.389) and made 3s per game (10.3), while the Bluejays are No. 11 in percentage (.367) and No. 3 in made 3s (10.2). And both are in the top 10 in attempts.
Longtime Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly is making sure to appreciate his team’s run to the Sweet 16.
The Cyclones haven’t been here since 2010, falling in the opening weekend nine times since. And Iowa State hasn’t reached a regional final since 2009.
“I think I’ve thanked them 50 times for getting me here,” said the 64-year-old Fennelly, now in his 27th season with Iowa State. “This like the coolest thing ever. I’m at a point in my career where you’re not going to do this many more times, if ever, and I just told them they have to enjoy this.
“Everything about it. I mean, you’ve got a police escort. How cool is that?”
North Carolina certainly knows its surroundings. The Atlantic Coast Conference regularly holds its tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum, giving the Tar Heels at least one game each March about an hour east of the Chapel Hill campus.
But it hasn’t been a friendly setting for North Carolina.
The Tar Heels are 0-3 in the ACC Tournament under Courtney Banghart, including an overtime loss to NCAA Tournament-bound Virginia Tech here earlier this month.
“I think it also is valuable that the result we got here last time wasn’t what we wanted,” graduate transfer Carlie Littlefield said. “We’re coming out here with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.”
Iowa State forward Nyamer Diew will play with a mask after suffering a broken nose in the second-round win against Georgia. … The bracket has two AP All-Americans in South Carolina’s Boston and second-teamer Ashley Joens of Iowa State. … The regional round here features two of the three schools that have men’s and women’s teams in the Sweet 16 with UNC and Iowa State. The other is Michigan. … The Tar Heels’ last Sweet 16 game came in the same setting, facing a top-seeded South Carolina team in Greensboro in 2015. The Gamecocks won 67-65 on the way to their first Final Four. ... Creighton had reached the second round in five of seven tournaments before having its Sweet 16 breakthrough.
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