After a surprise run to the WCC Tournament Championship in Las Vegas, the BYU Cougars are making an unexpected appearance in the Women’s NCAA Tournament. Their reward is an opening game against #3 seed Louisville on Saturday. While any player or coach will tell you it’s better than sitting at home right now, #14 seed Cougars will face one of their toughest tests of the season trying to get past the first round. Although it’s nothing the Cougars can’t handle, especially after last season.
This is the second straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Cougars. Last year, they reached the Sweet Sixteen as a #12 seed after knocking off the #5 and #4 seeded teams in their region. However, that won’t intimidate the Cardinals who are one of the best teams in the nation. They too reached the Sweet Sixteen last year, and the year before they reached the national title game before falling to UCONN. At 25-6 overall and 12-4 in ACC play, the Cardinals come into the NCAA Tournament ranked #10 in the nation,
Mar 1, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Mariya Moore (4) dribbles the ball against the Virginia Cavaliers John Paul Jones Arena. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
The Cardinals are a seasoned team despite their youth. That will happen when playing in a stacked conference like the ACC. Even just their two games in the ACC Tournament were tougher games than any BYU played all season as the Cardinals beat #15 North Carolina in overtime before falling to #7 Florida State in the semifinals. This is a high-level team that has faced high-level competition all season, so the Cougars must be at their best to have any chance.
As mentioned, the Cardinals have youth, but their youth has made an immediate impact. They are the only school in the AP Top 20 ranking that has two freshmen as their top two scorers. Mariya Moore was a Second Team All-ACC and All-ACC Freshman Team selection, and she leads the team with 13.8 points per game. She can do everything as she also leads the team in three pointers while ranking second in assists and third in steals.
Myisha Hines-Allen is the other top freshman and is second on the team with 11.5 points per game. Senior Sara Hammond rounds out the double-digit scorers putting up 10.8 points per game. Jude Schimmel leads the team in assists and steals.
This is a team that does almost everything well, but nothing amazing. They have balanced scoring, rebounding, and assists, which can be both good and bad. On the one hand, there’s no key players to focus on. Even if the Cougars shut down Moore and Hines-Allen, a number of players average 6-8 points per game and can pick up the slack. On the other hand, a strong team effort by the Cougars with their stars taking the lead could be enough to compete.
The Cougars will need big days from WCC Tournament MVP Lexi Easton and WCC Player of the Year Morgan Bailey. Eaton will need to put up 20+ points and do the bulk of the scoring to keep pace with the Cardinals, and Bailey has the potential to win the rebounding game inside.
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Kylie Maeda will need to lead an offense that must focus on ball control. With the numerous scoring options for the Cardinals and their ability to force turnovers, things could get out of hand quickly if the Cougars try to play a fast-paced game. Slowing things down and allowing Eaton to pick her shots and letting Bailey grind it out inside as the best rebounder on the court will be the key to a low-scoring victory. If Bailey and the frontcourt can establish some dominance inside with rebounds and high percentage shots, the Cougars can put the Cardinals on the defensive which will limit their scorers.
This can be a very even matchup if the Cougars have enough defense to slow down the Cardinals a little bit. If they can do that and play up to their potential, another upset is very possible. If they let the Cardinals control the pace of the game and suffer from sloppy play, it won’t be close. Coach Jeff Judkins has likely done all he can to make sure they are calm and prepared for this one, and hopefully the team realizes they have a fighting chance despite the disparity in ranking of the two teams. By now they know they can get upsets, so expect the Cougars to come out firing.
Tip-off is scheduled for 1pm Pacific in Tampa, Florida. The game can be seen on ESPN2.