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NCAA Sweet 16 preview: trends, upsets and matchups

Arizona women's basketball.
@ArizonaWBB

When people talk about the current state of basketball, they love to talk about the rise of the three-pointer. Teams are learning to jack up three ball after three ball after three ball, whether or not it’s a good shot. A decent three is inherently more valuable than an easy two. Right?

Well, here we are at the Sweet 16 with, presumably, the 16 best college basketball teams in the country. The most interesting thing? Only one team (Stanford) scores 34.1% or more of their points from three-point range, putting them in the top 50 in the country. Only two teams rank within the top 100 — Stanford and Iowa. The nation’s leading scoring team, Maryland, only gets 27.1% of its points from three-point range, 188th in the nation.

The message is clear: An open two-pointer is still better than a contested three. It doesn’t matter if you play fast or slow, if you have two dominant bigs or five speedy guards. The NCAA’s top teams are all doing the same thing. They’re taking high percentage looks rather than shooting threes for the sake of it.

Knowing the three ball might not prove to be a difference maker, these are the three most interesting matchups of the weekend. 

Most likely upset: No. 2 Louisville vs No. 6 Oregon

During the first two games of the NCAA tournament, Oregon is playing some of its best basketball of the season. And Louisville is playing some of its worst. 

The Cardinals have posted an offensive rating below 100 in five of their last seven games. That wasn’t the case for most of the season. In 17 of their previous 21 games, they posted an offensive rating above 100. During this bumpy stretch, Louisville’s star guard, Dana Evans, has averaged just 14.8 points per game while shooting 32.7% from the field.

The Ducks and their suffocating zone defense won’t help much with Louisville’s offensive woes. And the Ducks’ success is directly tied to their defense. In all but one of their 15 wins, opposing teams have shot below 40% from the field. In all but one of their 8 losses, teams have shot above 40%. If Oregon can continue funneling offensive players into 6-foot-5 Nyara Sabally and 6-foot-7 Sedona Prince, they could walk away with another upset.

Most underrated game: No. 2 Maryland vs No. 6 Texas

Of the eight Sweet 16 matchups, Maryland has the second highest chance of winning at 86.6% according to Her Hoop Stats. But don’t write off Texas just yet. Led by forward Charli Collier, a Big 12 All-Defensive selection, and guard Celeste Taylor, who averages 2.2 steals per game, the Longhorns have quietly emerged as one of the country’s strongest defensive teams. In the last 11 games, they have allowed more than 70 points just once. 

But Maryland is a different beast. They put up 91.3 points per game, shoot 40.6% from three, and feature six (six!) players who average double figures. Here’s the thing: Texas has played Baylor — the country’s third ranked scoring offense — three times this season. The Longhorns lost all three of those games, but they held Baylor to 60, 64, and 66 points in each of those outings — three of Baylor’s lowest scoring outings all season. It’s clear that Texas can shut down the NCAA’s best offenses, but it’s unclear if they can score enough in return. 

The difference is, Maryland can’t play defense like Baylor. Could Texas slow down Maryland enough to eke out a win? It’s certainly a possibility. And if Texas can’t stop Maryland, at least you’ll get to watch the Terrapins go for 100 points — for the eighth time this season.

Best head-to-head matchup: Jordan Nixon (No. 2 Texas A&M) vs Aari McDonald (No. 3 Arizona)

Yes, I know, Caitlin Clark versus Paige Bueckers is the most exciting first round matchup. But that’s too easy. I’ll take a different route how about Texas A&M guard Jordan Nixon vs. Arizona guard Aari McDonald? 

Nixon has been arguably the hottest player in the tournament thus far, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 57.8% from the field. McDonald, who was named Pac 12 Player of the Year and Co-Defensive Player of the Year, is arguably the best defender in the country. And McDonald’s playing some solid basketball of her own. Just look at the fourth quarter of Arizona’s last game.

With five minutes left in the Round of 32, the Wildcats trailed BYU by five points. That is, until McDonald willed them to victory. She scored seven points in those final minutes, hitting a mean step back, blazing by her defender for a lay-up, and then sealing the game with a steal. 

“It might’ve been the best five minutes by a UA basketball player, any gender, any game, since Miles Simon at the 1997 Final Four,” wrote Greg Hasen of the Arizona Daily Star.

It’s almost a cliche at this point, but it’s true: In March, you need clutch guards. This matchup has two of them.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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