Monday morning headline: New star, familiar fate for Duke
The headline this morning is Baylor's Brittney Griner taking over a game on a court where few opponents ever do so, turning in a second half against Tennessee that will echo from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.
But Mechelle Voepel was on hand to chronicle Baylor's victory in Knoxville, so top billing here goes to the weekend's other game between national championship hopefuls. Other than further confirmation that Natalie Novosel is clutch, this time hitting the winner at the buzzer, Notre Dame's 56-54 win against Duke in the Bahamas showed off a new star for the Blue Devils and a familiar struggle to score at the end of big games in which the team's defense did plenty.
Duke limited Notre Dame to 33 percent shooting from the floor, including just five assists on 18 field goals. And when Blue Devils freshman Elizabeth Williams scored to give her team a 53-51 lead with 2:44 to play, the prospects for a win looked good. After all, Williams was on her way to 16 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks, not quite the 32 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks Griner totaled against the Fighting Irish a week ago, but ample confirmation, if any was needed, that Williams is the real deal. But the Blue Devils didn't score another field goal, a fitting conclusion for a second half in which they shot 19 percent from the floor.
Duke has the talent to compete for a championship. It has the defense to compete for a championship. The trust factor that teams like Notre Dame have earned on offense? Not yet.
Best individual weekend performance: Chassidy Fussell, Texas. The Longhorns played their final game of the weekend in Hawaii after this entry was filed, but the first two efforts are enough to land Fussell in this spot. The sophomore opened the weekend with a career-best 30 points in a 79-53 rout of Virginia that knocked the Cavaliers from the ranks of the unbeaten. Her line wasn't quite as gaudy in Saturday's game against California, but she made the last of her 15 points count, scoring with 1:11 to play to give the Longhorns their first and only lead in a 61-60 win. One sign of growth for Fussell? Despite a cold start from the 3-point line this season (21.4 percent entering Sunday), she's shooting better overall from the field (46.5 percent to 40.1 percent as a freshman).
Best team weekend performance: Nebraska. Make it two wins in two attempts against ranked opponents for the Cornhuskers. Beating USC by 18 points in Lincoln a week before Thanksgiving was impressive, but Sunday's win on the road against No. 24 Florida State was arguably even better. In part that's because it came in Tallahassee, but also because it occurred without a big day from sophomore star Jordan Hooper, who put up 22 points and 13 rebounds against the Women of Troy but shot just 3 of 15 from the floor against the Seminoles (Hooper did get 21 points and eight rebounds in Friday's win against Florida A&M in the tournament hosted by Florida State). Still unbeaten, Nebraska gets a shot at Georgia Tech in Atlanta this week.
Beyond the headlines: Michigan starts strong. Nebraska wasn't the only Big Ten team (nope, still doesn't sound right) to make a case that it could be ranked heading into a big road game against an ACC opponent. Michigan is 7-0 for the first time since 1999 after winning the Paradise Jam by beating Prairie View A&M, Washington State and Marquette. It survived a scare in the first game before blowing out the Cougars by 30 points and the Golden Eagles by 20 points. Junior Jenny Ryan isn't scoring a lot of points, but with 32 assists, 13 turnovers, 42 rebounds and 25 steals in seven games, she's playing the kind of basketball that defines coach Kevin Borseth's style. The schedule so far has been heavy on teams from BCS conferences, albeit not those conference's strongest programs, but the Wolverines now need to show something as they move up in weight class to face Maryland this week and Iowa State this weekend.
Way beyond the headlines: Green Mountains turnaround. Don't start printing banners just yet, but Vermont deserves this much attention. The last most people heard of the Catamounts, Courtney Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos were confounding opponents and spellcheckers alike, beating Wisconsin in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament and holding their own against Notre Dame in the second round. The interim wasn't pretty. Coach Sharon Dawley left for Massachusetts and new coach Lori Gear McBride, left with a cupboard that was young if not empty, suffered through a 5-25 debut season that included a 95-38 opening loss at Nebraska and 15 consecutive losses before her first win.
Well, with Saturday's win against Texas Southern, the Catamounts are already 6-1 in Gear McBride's second campaign. The Canadian pipeline that runs through Burlington is still flowing with post Lauren Buschmann and guard Kristine Lalonde (although the latter missed both games on the Thanksgiving trip to Texas). Seton Hall transfer Shanai Heber leads the team in assists.
Bet you didn't know they're the Sugar Bears: Central Arkansas had a tough weekend in Texas, going 1-2 in the Texas Tech Classic, but full credit to junior Megan Herbert for reaching a milestone. Listed at just 5 feet, 11 inches, Herbert had 21 points and 13 rebounds in Friday's win against Louisiana-Monroe for her 50th double-double in 68 career games.
Setting the week to come (Monday-Friday)
North Carolina at Penn State (Wednesday): Penn State bounced back well after getting Delle Donned against Delaware, beating Iowa State and host Nevada over the holiday weekend, but a home game against the Tar Heels is their best chance to make a statement before conference play. Alex Bentley (1.21 assist-to-turnover ratio this season, down from 1.71 last season) will need to take care of the ball to avoid feeding the Tar Heels' transition game.
Florida State at Ohio State (Wednesday): Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis has a lot to prove this season without Jantel Lavender around, but credit where credit is due. Prahalis came up big in Sunday's win against a ranked LSU team, leading the Buckeyes with 28 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. With games Wednesday against Florida State and Sunday at Oklahoma, the stage is hers.
Delaware at Princeton (Thursday): You can have the ACC-Big Ten clashes; the best game of the week takes place in Princeton's Jadwin Gym. Delaware's Elena Delle Donne continues to be the best one-woman show this side of Brittney Griner, following up her 40-point effort in a win against Penn State with more typical (for her) lines of 22 points and nine rebounds in a victory against Villanova and 26 points and 18 rebounds against previously unbeaten St. Bonaventure. Meanwhile, unbeaten Princeton is beating some decent teams by double-digit margins, including Saint Joseph's, Villanova and Marist. Niveen Rasheed (17.7 points per game) isn't Delle Donne, but she's darn good.
Hartford at Marist (Thursday): This one is worth the price of admission just to watch Jennifer Rizzotti and Brian Giorgis coach, but it's also a meaningful test for a Hartford team off to a 5-1 start after beating TCU and Central Florida in the latter team's Thanksgiving tournament.
Miami at Michigan State (Thursday): Credit to Spartans coach Suzy Merchant for her willingness to even play road games at places like Florida Gulf Coast, but after losing that one and a neutral-site game against Villanova, this is Michigan State's best chance to regain some national footing. Likewise, for a Hurricanes team without any nonconference road wins of note in recent seasons, it's a chance to prove something in a tough road stop.