Wednesday, October 27News That Matters

N.C.A.A. Women’s Tournament: What We Learned

The N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament got off to an unusually newsworthy start over the past week, through a combination of peeks at the inequality off the court and glimpses of parity on it.

Upsets brought new faces and teams into the limelight, and social media fueled conversations about the ways female athletes are denied the same treatment as their male counterparts as a matter of course.

Here’s what we’ve learned from four marathon days of elite women’s basketball:

Plenty of top teams used the first round as an opportunity to pad their stats. UConn once again blew out its first two opponents and did it without Coach Geno Auriemma, who missed the tournament’s opening weekend after testing positive for the coronavirus. The team dispatched both High Point, which was making its N.C.A.A. tournament debut, and Syracuse with ease.

“When I think back with our win streaks and all of those things, that’s a credit to our players, because they don’t take days off,” said the UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey, the longtime Auriemma assistant who is running the Huskies in his absence. “They understand that every possession is important. Every practice is important.”

Some of the most commanding performances from the tournament’s opening rounds, though, came from the No. 2 seeds.

Baylor and Maryland showed a relentlessness on both ends of the floor that allowed them to reach 100 points and secure 40- to 50-point margins of victory. Maryland’s motto — “All gas, no brakes” — seemed particularly fitting as it poured in 198 points in two games. Baylor so thoroughly dominated Virginia Tech that, by the second half, the Lady Bears were throwing alley-oop passes to the all-American Nalyssa Smith, which she tried to dunk or tip in as if she were playing a casual scrimmage among friends instead of an N.C.A.A. tournament game.

These teams’ first two rounds can be summed up in what Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey said to Virginia Tech Coach Kenny Brooks after the game: “I told him, ‘Don’t look at the scoreboard.’”

While shocking upsets remain a rarity — the lowest seeds in the round of 16 are three No. 6s, all from major conferences — there have been a few surprises. A No. 1 seed, North Carolina State, trailed a No. 16, North Carolina A&T, by 6 points midway through the second quarter of its opening game. While the Wolfpack eventually posted a comfortable victory, the same scene repeated itself in the second round, when North Carolina State trailed eighth-seeded South Florida at halftime before rallying to advance.

Top-seeded South Carolina fared similarly, playing its lower seeded opponents fairly close early before breaking away. No. 2-seeded Louisville found itself playing catch up in its first game, and its second came down to the final minute. Another No. 2, Texas A&M, was behind for much of its opening weekend competition, earning late wins — including the tournament’s first buzzer-beater — by razor-thin margins.

“I hope everybody in Bryan-College Station celebrated the moment,” Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair said after his team defeated Iowa State on Jordan Nixon’s runner at the overtime buzzer. “Because you had to fight with us if you were sitting there watching on TV — you didn’t ever give up on us and we appreciate that.”

It’s still not clear if the unexpected competitiveness is a sign of an increasing parity in the women’s game, or of higher-seeded teams that entered the tournament on cruise control. But the uncertainty added excitement, and the matchups will only get better now.

It was impossible to watch a game during the first two rounds without hearing about one of two freshmen: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and UConn’s Paige Bueckers.

As a prospect who was both highly regarded and highly visible on social media, Bueckers had earned national news media attention before she even set foot in Storrs. But she has lived up to — and if anything exceeded — the hype by setting or challenging records set by some of the program’s best players. In her first N.C.A.A. tournament game, Bueckers scored 24 points — a team record for a Connecticut freshman in her tournament debut.

Clark only started to draw national attention with her Big Ten tournament performances, but truly broke through with a 35-point performance in a win over Kentucky in the second round. The leading scorer in Division I, Clark is now heading into a showdown with Bueckers and UConn that will air on ABC, as big a platform as an up-and-coming star (two actually) could want.

Three programs with double-digit seeds posted first-round wins this year. No. 11 Brigham Young, No. 13 Wright State and No. 12 Belmont all lost in the second round, but with their victories all three programs served as a potent reminder that the future of women’s college basketball should be much bigger than a few familiar coaches and their teams.

“We love the idea of a David vs. Goliath, and the opportunity to win games that people think that we shouldn’t based on our seeding,” Wright State Coach Katrina Merriweather said after the Raiders upset a No. 4 seed, Arkansas. “But I think the parity can just be attributed to the fact that we have a lot of females that are very good basketball players.”

Missouri State, a No. 5 seed with a rich tournament history, will represent all midmajor programs in the round of 16. It is also an example of how teams outside the Power Five can grow to become perpetual contenders. This will be the Lady Bears’ second consecutive trip to the tournament’s second weekend, even though they have endured a coaching change between those visits: The former coach Kellie Harper left to lead her alma mater, Tennessee, and was replaced by the former Michigan State assistant Amaka Agugua-Hamilton.

“We’re still going to go in there with a chip on our shoulder — we have a lot to prove,” Agagua-Hamilton said of the Lady Bears’ looming matchup with No. 1 Stanford. “It’s going to take a lot more focus and energy and attention to detail to try and knock Stanford off. But I just think that anything is possible.”

What began as some frustrated tweets among strength and conditioning coaches arriving in San Antonio for the tournament quickly became a conversation about sexism in sports that nearly overshadowed the tournament games in its scope and intensity.

The catalyst was the women’s weight rooms, or lack thereof. When men’s players arriving in Indianapolis shared pictures of the warehouse-size gym prepared for them, strength and conditioning coaches on the women’s side responded with photos of the only workout equipment they had been supplied: a single rack of dumbbells and pile of yoga mats.

Soon the players, confined to the N.C.A.A.’s so-called controlled environment as a part of Covid-19 health and safety protocols, began sharing concerns about the quality of the food, the size of the gift bags they received and the coronavirus tests they endured. In almost every case, the women’s teams received treatment inferior to that of men’s teams.

As the N.C.A.A. rushed to rectify some of the more obvious inequities, some of the sport’s pioneering players and coaches expanded the scope of the conversation. “The real issue is not the weights or the ‘swag’ bags; it’s that they did not think or do not think that the women ‘deserve’ the same amenities of the men,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley wrote in a statement where she also decried the fact that the marketing term “March Madness” had been copyrighted for use exclusively related to the men’s tournament.

“We have accepted our fate for far too long,” the retired Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wrote in her own statement. “This generation of women expects more, and we won’t stop until we get it.”

Regardless of whether a team had just won, or if their season had just ended, there was a common refrain in the tournament’s postgame news conferences: “It’s been hard; we’ve gone through a lot.”

Players and coaches referred specifically or obliquely to all the games canceled or postponed, and the ones in which their teams had played short-handed because of positive tests or isolation protocols. Some players spoke explicitly about their own experiences with the coronavirus.

“March 23 of last year, my coach died,” Texas A&M’s Jordan Nixon explained to reporters after she scored 35 points — including the winning shot in overtime — on Wednesday. Her high school coach, Dave Edwards, died of Covid-19 at 48. “He was one of my biggest fans,” she said, “and this game is for him.”

Other players admitted they were still not back to full strength after their own infections.

“Obviously, the last few games I have been struggling to come back from Covid,” the Michigan junior Leigha Brown said after scoring a career-high 28 points in the Wolverines’ opening game. Brown missed four games in January and February.

“I think tonight was probably how we saw her in November and December,” Michigan Coach Kim Barnes Arico said.