Sports Take: Women’s NCAA Tournament delivers March’s best basketball

By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor

The calendar has now flipped from March to April, and college basketball season is officially over. But as sports fans, we shouldn’t be too sad about it coming to an end.

The MLB season just started last week and the NBA playoffs are right around the corner. The Masters begins on Thursday and the Kentucky Derby is less than a month away. And for those who cannot get enough of their football, the NFL Draft is just a few weeks down the road.

But as we say goodbye to college basketball until November, let’s celebrate the incredible month of basketball that it was.

We witnessed the first 16-seed over a No. 1 seed upset in the University of Baltimore-College over Virginia. We followed Loyola-Chicago’s Cinderella run all the way to the Final Four, upsetting four higher seeds along the way. We saw the blue bloods — Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina and Kansas all eventually fizzle out. We saw Villanova put together one of the most impressive runs to the National Championship in recent memory, their second in three years, winning each game by double digits.

But as great as it was to follow these stories and witness these events in the men’s NCAA Tournament, it all failed in comparison to what we witnessed in the women’s NCAA Tournament — specifically, the Final Four and National Championship games.

But before I address the beautiful, competitive excellence displayed by all four teams—Connecticut, Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Louisville — I would be remiss if I did not mention some of the great games along the way.

One of the knocks on women’s college basketball is there isn’t the parity that there is on the men’s game. Most of the higher seeds are the higher seeds for a reason and the results usually follow suit.

But things have started to change in recent years. This was a great year to see that as two 11-seeds, a 12-seed, two 10-seeds all advance out of the first round. No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast upset No. 5 Missouri, Minnesota and Virginia won on the 10-line while two teams out of the Mid-American Conference, Buffalo and Central Michigan, advanced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen.

Buffalo took care of a pair of Florida schools in South Florida and Florida State while Central Michigan knocked out LSU and Ohio State, and both did so in dominating fashion with Buffalo posting a 21-point win over the Seminoles and Central Michigan posting a 17-point win over the Buckeyes. Having spent most of my youth in the Midwest with friends attending other schools in this conference, it was not only personally rewarding to see these schools turn the often straightforward tournament bracket on its head, but was also great for the sport itself.

But now onto the main course — the Final Four. For those who went out of town or were busy during the weekend, it was understandable, but it was also tragic because the women’s Final Four delivered three of the greatest basketball games I’ve ever seen.

For the second straight year, someone has proved that even though Connecticut entered the Final Four with a perfect 36-0, the Huskies were not invincible. Last year, it was Mississippi State guard Morgan William, who delivered the game-winning shot at the buzzer to end UConn’s 111-game winning streak.

This year, it was a scrappy and gutsy performance by Notre Dame, who lost four players to ACL injuries this season, and its star guard Arike Ogunbowale. Twice Notre Dame had Connecticut down by five with a hair more than 20 seconds remaining, but couldn’t quite close out the Huskies, resulting in overtime.

After it happened again in overtime, Ogunbowale wanted the ball and delivered for the Irish. Dribbling along the wide wing, Ogunbowale took a jab step forward and stepped back and delivered the final blow to the Huskies’ season. The junior then had a Twitter exchange with former Laker Kobe Bryant, saying that it was the greatest moment of her life — little did she know, she wasn’t done yet.

In the other semi-final, it was Louisville who ran away from underdog Oregon State to win the Midwest Region and Mississippi State, whose one blemish was a loss to 2017 National Champion South Carolina in the SEC Championship.

With the two schools going back and forth, trading blows, it was Roshunda Johnson’s three-pointer with six seconds left in the fourth quarter that tied the game at 59. The game appeared destined for overtime, but Myisha Hines-Allen raced down the court and had a look, but was too strong and then Jazmine Jones had a chance, but couldn’t connect. The result — two overtime games in the Final Four. What more could a fan of not just college basketball, but of all sports ask for?

In overtime, Mississippi State prevailed setting up the juggernaut fight with Notre Dame.

After coming so close a year ago, Mississippi State was so close it could taste the title. The Bulldogs led 58-53 with two minutes left.

But the Fighting Irish still had fight left in them, tying it at 58 with 46 seconds left.

The next sequence of events could go down in tournament lore. It started with six-feet-seven center Teaira McCowan missing a layup at one end of the floor, but forced an Irish turnover on the defensive end.

With the Bulldogs looking in transition, there was an iffy no-foul call at midcourt resulting in an Irish steal. After committing a foul to stop the fast break, Notre Dame drew up a play for Ogunbowale, who then drilled a contested three-pointer from the right wing to give Notre Dame its second National Championship in program history.

Regardless of who you identify with as a fan, the truth is that the Final Four was intense, competitive and filled with riveting action from start to finish. The women delivered many great March moments, culminating in the Final Four and National Championship game.

March was a great month for basketball and there is a lot to look forward to now that it’s over. The men’s tournament was enjoyable, but the women’s tournament and its Final Four and Championship game by far take the cake. So to all 68 teams, who made the field and poured their heart and souls out on the court, thanks for giving the sports world the tournament it wanted and deserved.