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NCAA Women’s Tournament: The four best 1st round games

CMU Hoops.

Most NCAA basketball fans are already thinking ahead to the Final Four. Will Baylor repeat? Can Maryland score enough to knock off the No. 1 seeds? How good is this young UConn squad?

But that doesn’t mean you should skip the first round, especially this year. With interstate rivalries, high-scoring 15 seeds, and 42-point-dropping guards all descending upon Texas, there will be an excess of competitive games. And if there’s an upset, do you want to be the one to miss it? Probably not.

Here are four of our favorite opening round match-ups:

No. 12 Central Michigan vs. No. 5 Iowa

Sunday, 12:00pm ET on ESPN

One thing’s for certain — this game is guaranteed to be a shootout, with two of the best offenses in college basketball — and two of the worst defenses. 

That spells bad news for the Hawkeyes, who have shown a tendency to struggle when a team can score with them. Iowa has played three teams this season that rank in the top-20 of points per game Maryland (twice), Ohio State (twice), and Iowa State. They went 1-4 in those games, with their only win coming against Iowa State. And Central Michigan can definitely keep with them. They averaged 77.9 points per game on the year, 16th best in the country.

Central Michigan is an interesting case study because they don’t play particularly fast, ranking 137th in points per possession. They’re just efficient, finishing 54.6% of their two-pointers, sixth-best in the country. And while Iowa might have the country’s most dynamic player in Caitlin Clark, Central Michigan has its own pair of guards, Molly Davis and Micaela Kelly, who each averaged 20-plus points per game this year and could readily lead CMU to the upset.

No. 14 Middle Tennessee vs. No. 3 Tennessee

Sunday, 2:00pm ET on ABC 

Tune in for the simple reason of watching Anastasia Hayes. The Middle Tennessee guard is a walking bucket, having averaged 26.5 points per game this season, second-best in the nation. She even dropped 42 in a game. 

It will be interesting to see how Hayes handles Tennessee’s length, with 6-foot-2 guard Jordan Horston wreaking havoc on the perimeter and SEC All-Defensive forward Tamari Key clogging up the middle. Tennessee will need a team effort to stop Hayes, but luckily, they know her pretty well — Hayes spent her freshman season playing for the Lady Volunteers, where she won the 2018 SEC 6th Woman of the Year. No one else on Middle Tennessee shoots above 45% from the field, but if they can find a way to hit shots and open lanes for Hayes, the Blue Raiders could keep it close. And if this game comes down to the wire, Hayes could help send her in-state rival and former squad home.

No. 9 South Dakota State vs. No. 8 Syracuse

Sunday, 5:30pm ET on ESPN2

Most of the time, people hesitate to select a non-Power 5 team for a deep run because they haven’t played a tough enough schedule. Well, that isn’t the case with South Dakota State, which has played five games against teams ranked in the top 75 of simple RPI, including 5th seeded Gonzaga, 5th seeded Missouri State, and 7th seeded Iowa State. The 21-3 Jackrabbits won all of those games and they could certainly give Syracuse some trouble on Sunday. Their biggest problem is that they allow opponents to shoot 30% from beyond the arch. But Syracuse isn’t a great three-point shooting team, knocking down just 29.7% of their threes. 

‘Cuse won’t go down easy, though. They are a veteran squad led by redshirt senior Tiana Mangakahia, the NCAA leader in assists who returned to the court after sitting out last season due to breast cancer. Senior Kiara Lewis, however, will be the key player Sunday. In games that Lewis scores 15 or more points, the Orange are 7-2. If she can get hot, South Dakota State will have trouble catching up. If not, this game could come down to the final possession.

No. 15 Troy vs. No. 2 Texas A&M

Monday, 6:00pm ET on ESPN2

I know, I know. The chances of Troy knocking off Texas A&M are very, very slim. But hear me out — this could still be an entertaining game. Troy plays at the fastest pace in the entire NCAA, averaging 83.1 possessions per 40 minutes and 84.3 points per game. 

Could Troy catch Texas A&M lazy in the first half and keep the game close? Possibly. Troy forward Alexus Dye could always get hot like she did earlier in the season against Mississippi State, when she dropped 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Worst case scenario: Texas A&M puts up more than 100 points, and Troy gets pretty close itself.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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