Women’s NCAA Tournament Briefing: Officiating oops and Dyaisha Fair’s brilliance highlight Round 1

Women’s NCAA Tournament Briefing: Officiating oops and Dyaisha Fair’s brilliance highlight Round 1

The first two days of the 2024 women’s NCAA Tournament have brought a number of close finishes. UNC, Nebraska and Oklahoma won games by 3 points or fewer. Kansas topped Michigan in overtime. Thus far, however, the tournament has been light on madness. There’s been only one seed-line upset (No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee over No. 6 seed Louisville), and the closest game involving a No. 1 or No. 2 seed was Ohio State’s 23-point win over Maine.

The lack of opening-round wonkiness doesn’t mean we’re missing notable results or performances. Instead, Saturday featured a star scorer taking over late in a game to stave off defeat, a different star scorer struggling but still almost ending up with a triple-double and an unusual situation involving the referees.

Subs are important … even in officiating

The madness is expected in March … but not this kind.

Astute observers noticed that an officiating change was made at halftime of the NC State-Chattanooga game. The NCAA released a statement explaining there was “a background conflict that, if known, would prevent (the official) from working that assigned game.”

The official in question — Tommi Paris — holds a master’s degree from Chattanooga University, according to her LinkedIn page. Officials are not supposed to have any conflicts of interest with either team in games they referee.

Making matters more confusing, Paris was replaced by Angelica Suffren, an official who had been a part of the three-member crew that had reffed the Tennessee–Green Bay game earlier that day. NCAA protocol would have required a standby official to be subbed into the game for Paris instead.

Paris also had officiated the regular-season Mississippi State-Chattanooga game in December.

GO DEEPER

Officials switched in NC State-Chattanooga due to ‘background conflict’

— Chantel Jennings

UCLA survives Lauren Betts’ absence

The second-seeded Bruins were dealt an unexpected blow prior to their opening game over Cal Baptist, when star center Lauren Betts, who was on the injury report as a game-time decision, was ruled out with an undisclosed injury. UCLA went 2-2 in the four games Betts missed this season, including a blowout loss to Stanford (its only regulation defeat by double digits) and a home loss to unranked Washington State.

Even against the overmatched Lancers, who entered the game as 28.5-point underdog, there was reason for concern. Fortunately for the Bruins, a team with one rotation player taller than 6-foot couldn’t exploit their weaknesses and they cruised to an 84-55 victory. UCLA outrebounded Cal Baptist by 20, including eight on the offensive end, and limited the visitors to 29 percent shooting from the field. The one area where the Bruins missed Betts most was defending without fouling. UCLA sent  the Lancers to the foul line 21 times, above their season average of 17.6 per game. Ten of those trips came in the second quarter when the Bruins got in the bonus early and let the Lancers stay close before breaking the game open in the second half.

Although they managed to stay alive without their anchor inside, the Bruins will need Betts moving forward. Creighton can punish UCLA from 3-point range in a way that Cal Baptist couldn’t, and the Bluejays are a veteran roster that has been in more tournament situations than these Bruns, including a road upset of a No. 2 seed two years ago in Iowa. Betts can help UCLA win the possession battle to counteract Creighton’s advantages from distance, and there will be a much slimmer margin for error without her.

Betts was on the bench for the Bruins and didn’t look to be sporting any serious injuries. Coach Cori Close described Betts’ injury as “nothing major,” and added she’s “hopeful” Betts will return for the second round Monday.

— Sabreena Merchant

Is the Big 12 back?

The Big 12 had a fairly disastrous 2023 NCAA Tournament. Conference tournament champ Iowa State was upset in the first round, regular-season champ Texas lost on its home court in the second round, and the Big 12 was the only power conference without a representative in the Sweet 16.

Fast forward one season, and things couldn’t be going more swimmingly for the conference.

The NCAA Tournament started with a bang for the Big 12 on Selection Sunday, as Texas earned the final No. 1 seed and the conference was assigned two hosting teams despite a shaky end to the season for No. 4 Kansas State. Through the first round of games, the Big 12 once again holds a unique distinction — this time, it’s the only conference still undefeated in the tournament.

The conference also has been responsible for some of the standout performances in the first round. Iowa State freshman Audi Crooks has scored more points than anyone else (40) as her Cyclones authored a 20-point comeback against Maryland. Kansas came back from down 5 to Michigan in the final two minutes to force overtime and then won in the extra period.

Oklahoma and West Virginia fended off popular upset bids against No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast and No. 9 seed Princeton, respectively, while the Longhorns and Wildcats took care of business at home. Add one Baylor win, and the Big 12 has more victories than any other conference. While the national attention has gone to the Pac-12 in its final season and the SEC, home of the last two champions, the middle-child conference has been chugging along, peaking at the right time and winning games under the radar.

The Big 12 has been considered a relative victim of conference realignment, as Texas and Oklahoma are on their way out after this season. But March is showing that some depth remains beyond the top two. Furthermore, the conference will welcome Arizona, Colorado and Utah next year; the former two have each collected a victory in the tournament, and the fifth-seeded Utes are favored against No. 12 seed South Dakota State.

Perhaps 2023 was a blip for the Big 12. The conference is back with a vengeance in this year’s Big Dance.

— Sabreena Merchant 

 


Caitlin Clark neared a triple-double in Iowa’s win against Holy Cross. (Matthew Holst / Getty Images)

Remembering to appreciate Caitlin Clark’s greatness

I’ve had a chance to see Caitlin Clark play in person many times over the past few seasons. More often than not, I find myself sitting in press row next to other folks who are in the same boat — fellow colleagues from The Athletic or folks who cover the Big Ten regularly. As I’ve said many times over, seeing her in person is quite different than watching her play on television. The shooting? Yes. That part remains impressive. But it’s the passing — when you can see the full court and the tight angles — that really awes in person.

I’m still impressed with her, but I’ve grown accustomed to being impressed. She raises the bar even for herself. No other player I’ve ever covered has such a superior ability that you can think both, “Wow, she’s not at her best tonight,” and, “We’re a few rebounds away from a triple-double,” at the same time.

In Saturday’s 91-65 first-round win over Holy Cross, Clark didn’t have her best outing. She shot 2 of 8 in the first half and turned over the ball six times. She still finished with 27 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.

GO DEEPER

Caitlin Clark leads Iowa past Holy Cross

However, one of the really lovely things about covering the NCAA Tournament (and the way women’s basketball coverage has grown) is that I’m now finding myself sitting next to people who have never seen Clark play in person. And that’s just a great reminder that what we’re seeing isn’t normal. For example, on the first offensive play for Iowa on Saturday, Clark threw a behind-the-back pass to Kate Martin. There’s a good chance I didn’t even react (because how many times have I seen that before? Yawn — mostly kidding), but from my right, I heard, “Oh my God! [gasp!] What a pass!” It was a good reminder to appreciate Clark’s game and never allow her prowess to dull how remarkable a triple-double (or near triple-double) is in person.

— Jennings

How high did Dyaisha Fair climb on the scoring chart?

Syracuse star Dyaisha Fair is encouraged to create her own shot and has a green light from her coaches. “They want my approach to always be, look to score the basketball first before I do anything else,” Fair told The Athletic earlier this week.

Fair did just that in the most important moments of No. 6 seed Syracuse’s first-round matchup against No. 11 seed Arizona on Saturday. In their first NCAA Tournament game since 2021, the Orange trailed 66-61 with 2:53 to play in regulation. Fair then showed why she is among the top scorers in college basketball history. The 5-foot-5 guard scored every point in an 11-0 Syracuse run, and she outscored the Wildcats 13-2 in the final three minutes. Her 32 points fueled Syracuse’s 74-69 victory.

“Pretty special young lady,” Syracuse coach Felisha Legette-Jack said.

Fair continued to surge up the NCAA Division I scoring record books. She is only 10 points away from tying Jackie Stiles for fourth on the all-time scoring list. She’ll likely pass Stiles on Monday, when the Orange play No. 3 seed UConn.

The Huskies present a difficult matchup for Fair, as they own one of the country’s top defenses. Senior guard Nika Mühl likely will be the primary defender on Fair, though UConn has a number of players capable of switching out onto the crafty Syracuse guard. Legette-Jack had said she wasn’t ready to finish coaching Fair, whom she describes like a daughter. She’ll get at least one more chance, with Fair looking more history in the eye. The Orange haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2016.

— Ben Pickman

(Top photo of Dyaisha Fair: Sean Elliot / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)