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NCAA Final Four: What Would Have Happened

GREENVILLE, SC – MARCH 08: Destanni Henderson (3) of South Carolina during the SEC Championship Women’s college basketball game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the South Carolina Gamecocks on March 8, 2020, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Last year, the biggest story leading into March Madness involved ESPN leaking the tournament bracket hours before the official announcement show. Fans were furious, as for so many programs, their moment of celebration — huddled together around a monitor, screaming and cheering as their seed was revealed — had been taken away prematurely.

Oh, how good we had it, when that was the biggest off-court headline.

The bracket is sacred in college hoops, but like so many things this year, it has been left empty by the coronavirus. No one is going dancing. On April 3rd and 5th, Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, the site of the now-cancelled Final Four, will be completely silent. The bracket, the court, the concessions stands, each of the 18,500 seats, the team benches — all empty. There will be no championship-clinching shots. No nets cut down in exuberant celebration.

In a different time, in a different world, the Final Four would be its usual culmination of an incredible year in college basketball. Instead, we’re left to speculate as to what might have been. But though we’ll never know how things would have actually played out, that doesn’t mean we can’t make educated guesses.

In lieu of an actual Final Four, we’ll have to settle with imagining one. And thanks to Charlie Creme over at ESPN, while we may not have an official bracket, we have the next closest thing.

In this version, South Carolina is the top seed in the Greenville regional, while Oregon is No. 1 in the Portland region. The Dallas regional is led by Baylor, and Maryland is the first seed in Fort Wayne. And while the wonderful people over at FiveThirtyEight and ESPN have used more mathematical, scientific, and data-driven techniques to determine a winner in their own simulated brackets, my approach is grounded in primarily feel. After all, it’s March Madness. It wouldn’t be any fun if a computer could predict it.

The top four seeds were truly in a class of their own this season, so I have no problem saying they would have all made it to the Final Four. Here’s how they got there, and what happened next:

Oregon continues its national ascension

While UC Davis is a new opponent, Oregon has seen its offense run before — by Stanford — and would have had no trouble blowing past the Aggies in the first round. The 3-point shooting of Erin Boley, Jaz Shelley and Taylor Chavez would easily make up for any down performance from Oregon’s big three in the subsequent rounds, while a rematch with UConn wasn’t scaring anyone in green. On the road in Gampel Pavilion, Oregon handily won their first meeting with the Huskies this year, and in Portland, with a Final Four berth on the line, the outcome would have been even more lopsided.

Maryland shoots its way to New Orleans

Maryland was destined to reach the Big Easy. I could entertain the argument that UConn was better than Maryland, but alas the Huskies were doomed to meet Oregon, while Maryland’s toughest competition was either No. 2 Louisville or No. 3 Arizona.

From a season-opening 119-56 win over Wagner through a Big Ten clinching beatdown of Ohio State, the Terrapins relied heavily on their nationally fourth-ranked offense. The tournament would have been no different. It’s easy to imagine Taylor Mikesell’s 3-point prowess bailing the Terps out of a close early round game, while freshman Ashley Owusu would have continued to play beyond her age in dishing out double-digit assists. Behind an underrated defense, Maryland would have won their 21st straight game in the Elite Eight as they advanced to New Orleans.

Baylor is all business

Baylor followed up last year’s national championship with another dominant regular season. And while they capped off the year with a surprise upset loss to Iowa State, it’s easy to believe that such a defeat would have been just the motivation the Lady Bears needed to spur their run to the Final Four.

Baylor has won its last five first round games by an average of 53.4 points, and against UMKC, nothing was going to change there. In the second round, I’d have bet money on senior Juicy Landrum hosting a personal going-away party from beyond the arc as she closed out her career at Baylor’s Ferrell Center. And in a potential Elite Eight matchup with Stanford, I’m certain Baylor’s nation-leading defense would have shown up in a big way to bottle up the Cardinal shooters, ensuring senior Lauren Cox a second straight trip to the Final Four.

South Carolina’s freshman continue to deliver

South Carolina led the nation in just two categories: blocked shots and win-loss percentage. The bottom line is that Dawn Staley’s crew just does not lose. Both Jackson State and Florida Gulf Coast would have found that out the hard way in the opening two rounds. And while Missouri State might have won their rematch with Oregon State, the Bears would have been no match for South Carolina’s stud trio of freshmen. An elite eight matchup with UCLA looks intriguing on paper, but outmatched on the inside, the Bruins would have ultimately been run over by the Gamecocks.

Semifinal: Oregon gets revenge

Since last year’s semi-final, Baylor and Oregon have each lost twice, Oregon to Arizona State, a seven seed, and Louisville, a second seed, and Baylor to Iowa State, a nine seed, and South Carolina, a one seed. But that is where the similarities end.

In the year since they last met, Oregon beat Team USA (convincingly). Sabrina Ionescu recorded eight regular season triple-doubles, Ruthy Hebard led the team in scoring for much of the season, and Satou Sabally had such a good junior year, she announced she’d be leaving school early to enter the WNBA draft. No other team in college had a trio as talented as these three.

In the 2019 Final Four, Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox combined to miss eight shots combined. Ionescu, meanwhile, missed 18, and her pick-and-roll partner Hebard was held to just four points while being defended by Brown.

It’s hard to imagine Ionescu, the unanimous AP Player of the Year, repeating such a dreadful performance. Hebard has likewise only been held to that low of a scoring output once since then (against Stanford, and she responded by going for 28 a few nights later). And while Brown might have made the drive out to Louisiana for the rematch, the Atlanta Dream forward would have been forced to watch from the stands as her alma mater tried to contain Oregon’s stars.

The deciding stat: Oregon was 7th in the country this year in 3-pointers per game; Baylor was 297th. And with Ionescu leading the charge from beyond the arc, this year’s matchup is going the way of the Ducks.

Semifinal: South Carolina outclasses Maryland

A lot has changed since the second game of the year, when the Gamecocks beat the Terps 63-54 — but not enough has changed in Maryland’s favor. South Carolina shot 31.7% that day and still won by nine, taking full advantage of 30 trips to the foul line. Since then, South Carolina has not shot lower than 35% in a game, averaging 47% on the season.

Both teams were led in scoring by their respective freshmen, but at this point in the season, South Carolina’s rookies are all battle-tested veterans. No one would have been surprised to see both Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke top 20 points against the Terps. Boston’s expertise on the glass would have also kept Maryland from second chance opportunities while securing South Carolina more than its fair share.

I’d expect South Carolina to go into the half up by double digits, before Owusu leads Maryland on a furious third quarter run. The game is close heading into the fourth, but that’s where Dawn Staley’s championship experience comes into play. Behind the veteran shooting and presence of Tyasha Harris, the Gamecocks eventually pull away, setting up…

National Championship: overtime thriller

The two best teams in college basketball meet in the final. New Orleans, which hosted one of only two national championships to ever require overtime, now gets a second. It’s just that close.

This is the matchup almost every neutral fan wanted to see. For Oregon, it’s a chance to make history and resolve what Ionescu famously called the team’s “unfinished business.” For South Carolina, its a chance to establish a dynasty. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris have played for, and won, a national championship, while Oregon only reached the Final Four for the first time last year.

The Gamecocks’ experience shows in the first quarter, as South Carolina builds a five point lead, their freshmen entirely unbothered by the bright lights…

Ducks fans are nervous, but Ionescu isn’t. In her essay “Dear Oregon Basketball,” she talked about the fear that the sky-high expectations of this season had initially induced. Two things settled her down. The first was her teammates. The second was a nod Kobe Bryant gave to her, when he told her that she made the right choice in returning for her senior season.

When Ionescu visited Stanford for a Pac-12 matchup after speaking at Kobe’s memorial in Los Angeles, she looked like a ghost in the first quarter, hitting just 1-of-3 shots. Then, in the second quarter, she went 2-for-2. In the third, she made 3-of-6 (while also hauling in her historic 1,000th career rebound). And in the fourth, Ionescu scored nine, giving a master class in embracing the privilege of confronting pressure. Compared to that day’s roller coaster, this national championship is just another game of hoops.

The second half goes back and forth, until Oregon takes a two-point lead with 15 seconds to play. Staley calls timeout and draws up a play for Boston, who finishes inside at the rim with just seconds remaining. Ionescu gets off a last second heave, and though it’s on target, her effort clangs off the iron. Overtime.

In the extra period, South Carolina’s Harris experience once again propel’s an early surge, but the Ducks claw back. Cooke puts her team up by two with seconds remaining, but she leaves Oregon with the last possession. Ionescu calls for an isolation, dribbling the clock down. South Carolina’s defense pushes out at the last moment, forcing Ionescu into a deep 3-pointer to win it all…

And a second chance is all she needs.

Swoosh. Ducks win.

USWNT to face Costa Rica in final Olympic send-off

uswnt sophia smith and tierna davidson celebrate at shebeilves cup 2024
The USWNT will play their final pre-Olympic friendly against Costa Rica on July 16th. (Photo by Greg Bartram/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

U.S. Soccer announced Tuesday that the USWNT will play their last home game on July 16th in the lead-up to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

The 2024 Send-Off Match against Costa Rica will take place at Washington, DC’s Audi Field — home to both the Washington Spirit and DC United — at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 16th. The friendly rounds out a four-game Olympic run-up campaign under incoming head coach Emma Hayes’ side, with the last two set to feature the finalized 2024 U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team roster.

Hayes will appear on the USWNT sideline for the first time this June, helming the team as they embark on a two-game series against Korea Republic hosted by Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado on June 1st followed by Allianz Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 4th. 

The team is then scheduled to meet a talented Mexico squad on July 13th at Gotham FC’s Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, where the Olympic-bound lineup will attempt to rewrite February’s shocking 2-0 loss to El Tri Femenil in the group stages of this year’s Concacaf W Gold Cup. And while clear roster favorites have emerged from both of this year’s Gold Cup and SheBelives Cup rosters, a spate of recent and recurring injuries means making it to the Olympics is still largely anyone’s game.

Broadcast and streaming channels for the USWNT's final July 16th friendly at Audi Field include TNT, truTV, Universo, Max, and Peacock.

Caitlin Clark’s WNBA start to serve as 2024 Olympic tryout

Clark of the Indiana Fever poses for a photo with Lin Dunn and Christie Sides during her introductory press conference on April 17, 2024
The talented Fever rookie is still in the running for a ticket to this summer's Paris Olympics. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The USA Basketball Women's National Team is still considering Caitlin Clark for a spot on the Paris Olympics squad, says selection committee chair Jennifer Rizzotti. 

On Monday, Rizzotti told the AP that the committee will be evaluating the college phenom’s Olympic prospects by keeping a close eye on her first few weeks of WNBA play with Indiana.

The move is somewhat unconventional. While Clark was invited to participate in the 14-player national team training camp held earlier this month — the last camp before Team USA’s roster drops — she was unable to attend due to it coinciding with Iowa’s trip to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Judging by the immense talent spread throughout the league in what might be their most hyped season to date, competition for a piece of the Olympic pie could be fiercer than ever before.

"You always want to introduce new players into the pool whether it's for now or the future," said Rizzotti. "We stick to our principles of talent, obviously, positional fit, loyalty and experience. It's got to be a combination of an entire body of work. It's still not going to be fair to some people."

Of course, Clark isn’t the first rookie the committee has made exceptions for. Coming off an exceptional college season that saw her averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game for UConn, Breanna Stewart was tapped to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil less than two weeks after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Storm. Eight years prior, fellow No. 1 pick Candace Parker punched her ticket to the 2008 Games in Beijing just two weeks after making her first appearance for the L.A. Sparks.

In the lead-up to Paris’ Opening Ceremony on July 26th, USA Basketball Women’s National Team is scheduled to play a pair of exhibition games. They'll first go up against the WNBA's finest at the July 20th WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix before facing Germany in London on July 23rd.

While an official roster announcement date hasn’t yet been issued, players won’t find out if they’ve made this year’s Olympic cut until at least June 1st.

WNBA teams make history with 2024 season ticket sell-outs

Arike Ogunbowale on the wnba court for the dallas wings
The Dallas Wings are now the third team to sell out their entire season ticket allotment in WNBA history. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, three different WNBA teams have completely sold out of season ticket plans well before the league's May 14th kick-off.

Call it the Caitlin Clark effect, attribute it to this year’s tenacious rookie class, or look to the skyrocketing visibility of veteran players across the board. But no matter the cause, facts are facts: Tickets to the 2024 WNBA season are selling like never before. 

On Monday, the Dallas Wings became the third team to sell out of season ticket memberships in the league’s 27-year history. The announcement from Arlington came shortly after the Atlanta Dream issued their own season ticket sell-out statement, also on Monday, and almost seven weeks after the back-to-back WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces made headlines by becoming the first-ever WNBA team to sell out their season ticket allotment.   

According to the Wings, season ticket memberships will fill nearly 40% of the 6,251 seats inside their home arena, College Park Center. The club also said that their overall ticket revenue has ballooned to the tune of 220% this year, spanning not just season tickets but also a 1,200% increase in single ticket sales. There’s currently a waitlist to become a Dallas season ticket holder, a status that comes with extra incentives like playoff presale access and discounts on additional single-game tickets. 

In Atlanta, season tickets aren't the only thing flying off the shelves. The Dream also announced that they broke their own record for single-game ticket sales during a recent limited presale campaign. Sunday was reportedly their most lucrative day, with five different games totally selling out Gateway Center Arena. Individual tickets for all upcoming matchups will hit the market this Thursday at 8 a.m., while a waitlist for season ticket memberships will open up next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"Excitement around women's sports, particularly basketball, is at an all-time high and nowhere is that felt more than here in Atlanta," Dream president and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said in the team’s statement. "We’ve continued a record-setting growth trajectory over the past three years under new ownership — both on and off the court — and 2024 is shaping up to be our best season yet."

As of Tuesday, season ticket sales revenue for Caitlin Clark’s hotly anticipated Indiana Fever debut haven’t yet been announced by the club. But if these numbers are any indication — not to mention the explosive demand for Fever away games felt by teams around the country — it won’t be long before we see some scale-tipping figures coming out of Indianapolis.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

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