Countdown to change in women’s college basketball: One Mississippi…
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Wait, wait a minute. Upheavals like this aren’t supposed to happen, especially in the NCAA basketball tournament on the women’s side.
On its crowded home court on Sunday night, a No. 1-seeded Stanford team led by a pair of All-Americans played like they were struggling to learn the basics — lay-ups and passing. smart, to name just two.
Mississippi, a transfer-laden eighth-seeded team, flooded the field in waves, hitting virtually every crucial shot and appearing to put a body (or three or four) on every Cardinal attempting a near-basket shot.
Mississippi has never hung around. When Stanford finally tied the score in the final two minutes, Mississippi’s response was to suppress the defense even further, forcing the Cardinal into turnovers. Final score: Mississippi in the lead, 54-49.
What a game. What a time for women’s basketball, where a boom in talented players and teams, along with fundamental changes in college sports, are adding new layers of competitive parity.
When it was over, I watched the entire Mississippi team and their effervescent coach dance in the middle of the field and take pictures while standing on the Cardinal logo long after most fans of the home team had left the maple pavilion.
Stanford players had tears in their eyes and were stunned. “I think I’m in shock,” said guard Haley Jones, a third-team All-American. She and teammate Cameron Brink, a second all-American team this year, were NCAA champions in 2021.
But the shock didn’t stop Jones from taking a broader view. This game, she acknowledged at a press conference, had a deeper meaning than most upsets.
“We hate to be the ones this happens to,” she said. “But it says a lot about women’s basketball to have an eighth seed like Ole Miss, talented as she is.
“It’s definitely growth for women’s football.”
To say such a loss is rare is to underestimate it, especially in women’s basketball, where talent has typically been concentrated at the top and the lack of depth in the game has often been exposed in March.
Only four seeds had failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the women’s tournament since 1994, when it had grown to 64 teams.
In contrast, 20 seeds had failed to qualify for the last 16 of the men’s tournament during this period. The latest casualties suffered the indignity of defeat last week: Kansas, which fell to Arkansas, and top seed Purdue, which suffered one of the biggest losses in league history. NCAA when it succumbed to 16th seed Fairleigh Dickinson, a result that was on no one’s bracket.
When I asked Mississippi coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin what her team’s win meant for women’s basketball, she talked about the growing talent pool.
“That’s what I was telling my team,” said McPhee-McCuin, 40, who is one of the few black women to lead a team in this tournament and is loved by her players for her relentless energy.
McPhee-McCuin, known to her players as Coach Yo, said she was sure to focus her team on winning Fairleigh Dickinson over Purdue in the men’s tournament. “We need to normalize this for women’s football,” she said, noting that, in her opinion, women are too often conditioned to control their self-confidence, which can make the elimination of their favorite opponents all the more difficult.
Coach Yo is not lacking in confidence. She toppled a Mississippi team that in 2020 went winless in the Southeastern Conference, and made it clear on that trip that she represents change in women’s basketball.
She announced without hesitation that she was part of a new breed of young, hungry newcomers who have a deep respect for their legendary peers like Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, but also plan to shake up the status quo. “I am the future of women’s basketball,” she said boldly after her team beat a tough Gonzaga team by 23 points on Friday.
The future will be very different. The women’s game is evolving seismically.
More news media attention. More buzz in the stadiums. More capacity mobs.
Half a century after Title IX, the landmark legislation that gave greater opportunities to women and girls in high school and college sports, several generations of female players have played the game at a high level, creating a stream of constantly improving skills.
More recently, changes in endorsement rules allowing players to take advantage of their skills have boosted the game. Mississippi is among the women’s teams benefiting from a collective that pays an allowance to each player.
Ten years ago, it was rare for players to be transferred. Now the rules have changed and movement is the new normal. Coach Yo has been known to say that she walks to the transfer gate like she’s shopping at the grocery store.
Over the past two seasons, she has brought in eight players from other schools. Sunday night against the Cardinal many played important roles, none greater than Myah Taylor, a sparkling point guard who once played at rival Mississippi State and scored just 3 points but led his team as if she was conducting a symphony.
Can Ole Miss repeat that kind of performance next weekend?
Can other underdog teams replicate it in future NCAA tournaments?
Part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so great is the combination of early-round upsets and last-gasp finishes, with upstarts cutting the wind from top-seeded teams.
These kinds of games are common in men’s tournaments. Think 13th-seeded Valparaiso, a school much of America hasn’t heard of, knocking out… ahem, Mississippi, a No. 4 seed, on Bryce Drew’s last gasp in the first round of the 1998 tournament.
Hopefully, the Mississippi women’s team entering Stanford, undeterred and undeterred on their way to victory, is a sign of things to come.
But who knows. Predicting the future in sport is often a wild ride, so after watching Sunday’s thrilling game from the pitch, I’ll just say this: