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Senior Watch: On To The Sweet 16

The opening four days of the 2018 NCAA Tournament are in the books and it featured a mix of the expected (UConn blowouts, No. 1 seeds advancing) and the unexpected (two No. 11 seeds in the Sweet 16, a trio of No. 3 seeds bounced in the second round).

Before we look ahead to the Sweet 16, which tips off on Friday, let’s take a look back at the opening two rounds of action with a focus on the top senior prospects playing in their final college games before entering the pro ranks.

Five Takeaways From The Opening Two Rounds

1. Early Exits For No. 3 Seeds

The men’s tournament was not the only one to see major upsets in the opening weekend of action. Only the Kansas City region saw the top four seeds advance through the first two rounds. While all four No. 1 and all four No. 2 seeds advanced, only one No. 3 seed (UCLA) survived.

Ohio State: Kelsey Mitchell scored 28 points on 11-29 shooting in Ohio State’s loss to Central Michigan in the second round. Mitchell finished her college career as the second-leading scorer in NCAA history (3,402 points), passing Jackie Stiles (3,394) in her final game. Fellow senior Stephanie Mavunga had a strong showing in the tournament, posting double-doubles in both games (22 pts, 13 reb vs GW and 16 pts, 15 reb vs CMU).

Tennessee: The Lady Vols lost on their home floor for the first time in NCAA Tournament history (57-1) as they fell 66-59 to No. 6 seed Oregon State on Sunday. Mercedes Russell closed out her Tennessee career with 21 points and 14 rebounds in the loss, while fellow senior Jaime Nared scored nine points on just 3-14 shooting.

Florida State: The trend of No. 3 seeds falling continued on Monday with Florida State losing by 21 points to No. 11 seed Buffalo. Shakayla Thomas had 25 points (10-15 FG) in her final college game, but it was not enough to prevent the upset. Fellow senior AJ Alix had 11 points, 4 assists and 4 steals for the Seminoles but shot just 3-12 from the field and 1-8 from three in the loss.

2. No. 1 Seed Dominance

The No. 1 overall seed UConn opened the tournament with a record-breaking 140-52 victory over St. Francis of Pennsylvania. They followed that up with a 71-46 win over Quinnipiac to advance to the Sweet 16 for the 25th straight year. Through two games, Gabby Williams has scored 22 points on 9-10 shooting while adding 11 assists, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks for the Huskies. Kia Nurse has 28 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists and shot 11-18 from the field in the two wins.

Fellow No. 1 seeds Notre Dame (plus-44), Louisville (plus-50) and Mississippi State (plus-60) all advanced with relative ease over the first two rounds of action. Victoria Vivians had a pair of 20-point games for Mississippi State with 20 points and 13 boards in the opening win over Nicholls and followed it up with 23 points in the second round win over Oklahoma State. Fellow senior Morgan William added 17 points against Oklahoma State to help Mississippi State advance to the Sweet 16.

For Louisville, Myisha Hines-Allen had a slow start offensively, scoring just four points to go with 14 boards in an opening round win over Boise State. In the second round against Marquette, she made her first 10 baskets and finished 12-16 from the floor as she posted 24 points and 13 boards to push the Cardinals to the Sweet 16.

3. No. 2 Seeds Sweep Through

All four No. 2 seeds advanced through the first two rounds of action with only South Carolina having a game decided by fewer than 20 points. The Gamecocks opened their title defense with a bit of a scare from No. 15 seed North Carolina A&T. After a dominant first quarter (26-11), the Gamecocks were outscored 41-37 the rest of the way as they held off the Aggies in the fourth quarter to secure a 63-52 win behind 19 points and 16 boards from A’ja Wilson.

Wilson also shined in South Carolina’s second round win over No. 10 seed Virginia as she finished with 25 points and 11 boards in the final home game of her college career. While the Gamecocks won their first two games by a combined 21 points, the rest of the No. 2 seeds won each of their games by at least 20 en route to the Sweet 16.

Texas picked up wins over Maine and Arizona State in the first two rounds, with seniors Ariel Atkins (28 pts, 10 reb, 9 ast, 11-20 FG in the two games) and Brooke McCarty (22 pts, 17 reb, 7 ast, 8-13 FG, 4-6 3P) helping the Longhorns advance to their fourth straight Sweet 16.

Another senior that helped a No. 2 seed advance through the first two rounds is Oregon sharpshooter Lexi Bando. The 5-9 guard is shooting 46.9% from beyond the arc this season (3rd in NCAA) and splashed six treys in the Ducks’ first two games of the tournament, scoring 11 points in wins over Seattle and Minnesota.

4. More Senior Standouts

Bando isn’t the only senior prospect representing the state of Oregon to advance to the Sweet 16. Marie Gülich had 14 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks to help No. 6 seed Oregon State take down No. 3 seed Tennessee in the second round to set up a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 2 seed Baylor.

Two sets of senior prospect teammates also advanced through the first two rounds of the tournament. We begin with the only No. 3 seed to survive – the UCLA Bruins – who got strong performances from seniors Jordin Canada and Monique Billings in wins over No. 14 American and No. 11 Creighton. Both players posted double-doubles in UCLA’s opening round win over American with Billings leading the way with 20 points, 10 boards, 3 steals and 3 blocks. In the second round win over Creighton it was Canada’s turn to take top billing as she finished with 21 points, 8 assists, 6 boards and 5 steals in the 22-point win.

No. 5 seed Duke put together an impressive run to the Sweet 16. After opening the tournament with a 14-point win over Belmont, the Blue Devils had an outstanding defensive performance against No. 4 seed Georgia, holding the Bulldogs to just two points in the second quarter and knocking them out of the tournament on their home floor.

Seniors Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell helped lead the way for Duke. Brown stuffed the stat sheet in both games, but was particularly strong against Georgia as she finished with 14 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists and 7 steals in the contest. Greenwell shined in the tournament opener, scoring 18 points and knocking down four 3-pointers in the win over Belmont. Brown has yet to find the touch from beyond the arc (1-8 in the first two rounds), but will need to catch fire if the Blue Devils hope to knock off No. 1 UConn in the Sweet 16 on Saturday.

No. 4 seed Stanford advanced in the Lexington Region where they will face top seed Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday. Senior prospect Brittany McPhee opened the tournament with a double-double (11 pts, 11 reb, 6 ast, 2 stl) in Stanford’s win over Gonzaga and came one rebound shy of doing it again (17 pts, 9 reb, 1 ast, 3 stl, 2 blk) in the second round win over Florida Gulf Coast.

5. The End of the Road

While many of the top senior prospects advanced to the second weekend of the tournament, there were a fair share that saw their college careers come to a close over the past few days. In addition to the players from the No. 3 seeds we discussed earlier – Ohio State, Florida State and Tennessee – there were five other prospects on our radar that were eliminated in the opening rounds, including four players from two schools from the state of Oklahoma.

Loryn Goodwin was among the nation’s leaders in both scoring (20.6 ppg, 19th in NCAA) and assists (5.5 apg, 31st in NCAA) this season. After opening the tournament with a statline of 19 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 steals in No. 9 Oklahoma State’s win over No. 8 Syracuse, she flirted with a triple-double (14 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) in her final college game – a 71-56 loss to No. 1 seed Mississippi State. Fellow senior Kaylee Jensen also had a pair of strong showings; first with a double-double (19 pts, 12 reb) against Syracuse and followed by a 18-point, 7-rebound game against Mississippi State.

No. 12 seed Oklahoma faced long odds for an extended tournament run and gave No. 5 seed DePaul a tough test in the opening round but ultimately fell, 90-79. Seniors Vionise Pierre-Louis (21 pts, 6 reb, 7-9 FG) and Gabbi Ortiz (18 pts, 4 reb, 7-11 FG, 4-7 3P) led the way for the Sooners, but their efforts weren’t enough to pull off the upset.

Michigan’s Katelynn Flaherty was the fifth-leading scorer in the NCAA this season (22.9 ppg), but was held below her average in both of No. 7 seed Michigan’s tournament games. She had 20 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and shot 6-13 from the field, 2-2 from beyond the arc and 6-6 from the free throw line in the Wolverine’s opening round win over Northern Colorado. However, in their second round matchup with No. 2 seed Baylor, Flaherty shot just 6-20 from the field with all of her buckets coming from beyond the arc (6-14) as she finished with 18 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists in the 80-58 loss.

Sweet 16 Preview

Now that the field has been trimmed from 64 teams to just 16, the number of games to watch and the senior prospects to follow comes into sharper focus. Below is the schedule for the eight games that will be played between Friday and Saturday to narrow the field down to eight, before the remainder of the weekend takes it all the way down to the Final Four.

Kansas City Region

No. 1 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 NC State (Friday, March 23, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN)

Seniors to watch

  • Victoria Vivians, No. 1 Mississippi State
  • Morgan William, No. 1 Mississippi State
  • Chelsea Nelson, No. 4 NC State

No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 UCLA (Friday, March 23, 9:00 PM ET, ESPN2)

Seniors to watch

  • Ariel Atkins, No. 2 Texas
  • Brooke McCarty, No. 2 Texas
  • Jordin Canada, No. 3 UCLA
  • Monique Billings, No. 3 UCLA

Lexington Region

No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 4 Stanford (Friday, March 23, 9:00 PM ET, ESPN)

Seniors to watch

  • Myisha Hines-Allen, No. 1 Louisville
  • Brittany McPhee, No. 4 Stanford

No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 6 Oregon State (Friday, March 23, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN2)

Seniors to watch

  • Dekeiya Cohen, No. 2 Baylor
  • Marie Gülich, No. 6 Oregon State

Albany Region

No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 5 Duke (Saturday, March 24, 1:30 PM ET, ESPN)

Seniors to watch

  • Gabby Williams, No 1. Connecticut
  • Kia Nurse, No. 1 Connecticut
  • Lexie Brown, No. 5 Duke
  • Rebecca Greenwell, No. 5 Duke

No. 11 Buffalo at No. 2 South Carolina (Saturday, March 24, 11:30 AM ET, ESPN)

Seniors to watch

  • A’ja Wilson, No. 2 South Carolina

Spokane Region

No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Texas A&M (Saturday, March 24, 4:00 PM ET, ESPN)

Seniors to watch

  • Khaalia Hillsman, No. 4 Texas A&M

No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 11 Central Michigan (Saturday, March 24, 6:00 PM ET, ESPN)

Seniors to watch

  • Lexi Bando, No. 2 Oregon
  • Tinara Moore, No. 11 Central Michigan

The Sweet 16 is made up of 12 of the top 16 seeds entering the tournament with one five seed, one six seed and a pair of 11 seeds crashing the party.

Will there be more upsets to play out this weekend? Will we get all No. 1 and 2 seeds in the Final Four like we did a year ago? Which player will have a breakout moment? We’ll find out starting Friday.