The first major shake-up of the 2023 women's NCAA tournament came in the final game Sunday as No. 8 Ole Miss upset No. 1 seed Stanford 54-49 on the Cardinal's home court at Maples Pavilion. Stanford joins two 1-seeds on the men's side, Purdue and Kansas, in exiting in the first weekend of March Madness.
The Rebels' win sends a women's No. 1 seed home before the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009, and ended a day that had been dominated by chalk as half the regional semifinals were set. Ole Miss advances to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007.
How far will Ole Miss go and how does its win change the race in the Seattle 4 Regional? Few expected the Rebels -- who in 2019-20 went 7-23 overall and 0-16 in the SEC -- to make it this far. But under coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, who took over in 2018, the Rebels' defense has become their calling card. They flustered Stanford, the 2021 national champions, which lost in the Final Four semifinals last year.
When the season opened, many penciled in South Carolina and Stanford, the past two national champions, for the Final Four. But only one of them has a chance to be in Dallas. The Gamecocks remain unbeaten; they topped South Florida on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16 in the Greenville 1 Regional.
As Stanford is left to lament a promising season that went sideways, with no Pac-12 tournament title and a shockingly early exit from the NCAA tournament, ESPN's Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel look at what happened in Sunday's big stunner and what upsets to look for Monday as the Sweet 16 is finalized.
Click here for Monday's schedule -- all games are on ESPN's family of networks and the ESPN App. And be sure to check your Women's Tournament Challenge bracket.
A second-half surge sends South Carolina past South Florida, 76-45, led by Zia Cooke's 21 points and Aliyah Boston's double-double, securing a spot in the Sweet 16.
What went wrong for Stanford and what did Ole Miss do right to upset the No. 1 Cardinal?
Creme: The amount of missed layups was staggering. In the third quarter alone, Stanford missed six. They kept the Cardinal in a hole the entire night. Some were bad luck. Others were the product of relentless contests by the Ole Miss defense. But the Cardinal simply got outworked. The phrase "they just wanted it more" has become too much of a cliché, but if it's ever appropriate, this would be the night. And despite making just one field goal in the fourth quarter, the Rebels played harder and, for most of the game, played smarter. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer seemed concerned about the toughness and intensity Ole Miss would bring to Maples Pavilion. Her players didn't seem to get it until it was too late.
As good as Ole Miss' defense was, the Stanford offense has been a concern for a few weeks. None of the young players rose to the occasion in late-season losses to Utah and UCLA, and the Cardinal became too dependent on Haley Jones and Cameron Brink. All of it continued on Sunday night as the rest of the team combined for only 13 points (Brink had 20 points and 13 rebounds; Jones had 16 and eight). The two All-Americans weren't enough.
Philippou: Ole Miss is considered a defensive-minded team, and it was a masterclass performance on that end of the floor from Coach Yo's squad. The Rebels contested 43 of Stanford's 52 field goal attempts, including 32 of 37 in the paint and 28 of 32 by Jones and Brink, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Cardinal couldn't even get going in the open floor, as Ole Miss excelled at getting back in transition. Thanks to that effort, Stanford never looked comfortable offensively, ultimately committing more turnovers (21) than field goals made (17), going 10-for-32 on layups and getting outrebounded 43-39 -- which Brink credited to Ole Miss' physicality down low. Though Stanford locked up a bit more defensively in the second half, Ole Miss made the Cardinal pay for their miscues with 24 points off turnovers and going 10-for-12 from the free throw line in the fourth.
Brink said after the game this Stanford team lacked grit this year, while VanDerveer seemed to believe it was more of an issue of lack of experience among the young backcourt. It'll be fascinating to see whether/how they can improve in those areas with such a decorated senior group leaving The Farm in the offseason.
Voepel: When Ole Miss last went to the Sweet 16 in 2007, it did so behind future WNBA player Armintie Price. As a No. 7 seed, those Rebels defeated then-No. 2 Maryland, which was the defending national champion, in the second round. Carol Ross was the Rebels' coach then, and like McPhee-McCuin, built her team on defense, but they had in Price a real offensive standout, and they won that game against the Terps 89-78. They went all the way to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual national champ Tennessee.
Sunday, as Charlie and Alexa point out, this group of Rebels basically squeezed the life out of Stanford's offense. The fact that the Rebels went so long without scoring in the fourth quarter and still won just shows how mind-boggling their defensive hold on Stanford was.
What's Ole Miss' ceiling and how does Stanford's loss impact what happens in the Seattle 4 Regional?
Creme: Iowa must be smiling. Not only is the No. 1 seed now out of the way, but the high-scoring Hawkeyes have nothing but defensive-oriented, offensively challenged teams remaining in the region. Not a single team left -- Texas, Louisville, Ole Miss, Colorado or Duke -- is going to outscore Iowa. That said, this region could also be Ole Miss' for the taking. Over this entire weekend, we have been looking for that one team to create bracket chaos. That team is the Rebels. As much as the path looks good for Iowa, there isn't a team remaining in Seattle 4 that Ole Miss can't beat either. But it has been a long time since a No. 8 seed reached the Final Four.
Voepel: The first time a No. 8 reached the Final Four was 1992 with Missouri State. And the lowest seed to make the Final Four on the women's side is No. 9 Arkansas in 1998. Even so, we're talking about really rare occurrences. For Ole Miss to replicate what Missouri State and Arkansas did, the Rebels will need to keep doing what they have so far defensively, but will need more offense. Because in either Texas or Louisville, they will face a team that can defend as well as them, but has more offensive options. Of course, if we end up with a Duke-Ole Miss regional final, it might be first-to-40-points wins.
Philippou: If other teams can replicate what Georgia did to Iowa on Sunday, it might not bode well for the Hawkeyes. Stanford had players who knew what it took to win a national championship, but with them eliminated, it's tough to see any of these remaining teams being able to play in a transcendent fashion to knock off a team as hot as Iowa. But, hey, that's why you play the games.
What's next for Stanford?
Creme: After the loss to Ole Miss, VanDerveer referred to the team's inexperience as a problem. She's probably right. The young players at Stanford didn't look ready for the team's biggest games in February and March. They especially looked out of their element against the Rebels.
If Stanford is to remain at the top of the Pac-12 and a Final Four contender next season, those young players need to develop faster in the off season than they did this season. Talana Lepolo and Indya Nivar didn't become the point guards that VanDerveer so desperately needed. Jones had to absorb much of that responsibility, and she won't be there to rely upon. Replacing Jones' experience, reliability and production is task No. 1.
In addition to lacking a true point guard, Stanford got exposed late in the season for a lack of dependable shooters. The best one, Hannah Jump, was too dependent on someone getting her the ball, a problem compounded by the point guard issue. Jump is planning to return for her extra year, but will need help to maximize her shooting talents. Brink will be there to build around and will be one of the best players in the country, but roster reconstruction and individual development will have to be priorities during the summer.
Voepel: Stanford played probably its worst game of the 2021-22 season in the national semifinals and lost to UConn. And that's no shade toward the Huskies; even coach Geno Auriemma said he thought it took Stanford playing subpar for UConn to win.
Now, the Cardinal have exited before the national championship game again -- way before -- but in an even more disappointing fashion. There will be second-guessing by the Cardinal fans about why this team seemed to get worse instead of better as the season progressed.
I've wondered over the last three years about Stanford finding the right rotations all the time with so much talent. The chemistry the Cardinal were able to maintain in the pandemic-impacted 2020-2021 season -- when at one point they spent nine consecutive weeks away from home -- just didn't carry through the last two seasons. Losing the leaders they did at the guard position like Kiana Williams after the 2021 Final Four and Anna Wilson after the 2022 Final Four hurt, too.
Which team outside of the top 16 seeds that's playing Monday has the best chance to advance to the Sweet 16?
Creme: No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast might be ready to take another step and reach the program's first Sweet 16. After beating Virginia Tech in the first round last March, the Eagles drew a long and athletic Maryland team, a bad matchup for how Karl Smesko likes his teams to play. Smesko runs his offense based on the analytics that say the only good shots are high percentage layups or maximum value 3-pointers. FGCU led the country in made 3-pointers but were also second in 2-point field goal percentage. In Saturday's win over Washington State, the Eagles relied heavily on those layups with great success.
Since Villanova doesn't have a shot-blocking presence inside or long wing defenders, FGCU should be able to employ the same strategy. Villanova also allows its opponents to shoot 33.3% from behind the arc. That ranks 290th in the country. Slowing down Maddy Siegrist, the nation's leading scorer, will be a challenge for the Eagles, but of the top-four seeds they could have drawn in Round 2, Villanova is the best matchup.
Philippou: Both Colorado and Duke are known for their defensive identities, but the Buffaloes can hit 3-pointers in a way Duke simply can't (Colorado went 13-for-27 from the arc in its first-round win over Middle Tennessee). This could be a low-scoring game, but in those sorts of situations all it takes is one or two key shots at the right time to come away with a win -- and the Buffs have a better chance of producing that (perhaps from Jaylyn Sherrod, who certainly is an intense player).
Voepel: I won't be surprised to see two No. 5 seeds, Louisville and Oklahoma, advance on Monday. Obviously, neither one is very far outside the top 16, so these wouldn't be huge upsets. And the Cardinals, of course, were a Final Four team last season. And although they had to go to the wire with No. 12 seed Drake in the first round, credit for that goes to the Bulldogs.