The Creighton Bluejays aren't done making history in March Madness. The No. 10 seed in the Greensboro Regional, Creighton upset the third-seeded Iowa State Cyclones 76-68 to advance to its first Elite Eight. The Bluejays became just the fourth double-digit seed in women's NCAA tournament history to reach the regional semifinals, and the first since 2017.
Creighton's win also marked the ninth victory by a double-digit seed in the 2022 women's NCAA tournament, passing the old record set in 1991 and matched in 2018.
ESPN's BPI gave Creighton a 6% chance to make the Elite Eight entering the tournament. And in the Women's Tournament Challenge, the Bluejays were picked to lose in the first round in 59.9% of brackets, and tabbed to reach the Elite Eight in just 3% of brackets.
Now all eyes turn to Saturday's regional semifinals, where the 10th-seeded South Dakota Coyotes will try to keep their own Cinderella run going. South Dakota faces 3-seed Michigan (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in the final game of the Sweet 16.
What are the keys to that game? What else are we looking to Saturday? And what are the takeaways of Aliyah Boston's big night for the South Carolina Gamecocks and Friday's other results? ESPN's team of Katie Barnes, Charlie Creme, Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel weighs in on it all.
Creighton upended No. 3 seed Iowa State. How did the Bluejays keep their Cinderella run alive?
Voepel: Not to get all existential, but Creighton in this NCAA tournament has been the best version of itself. The Bluejays lost their regular-season finale to DePaul and their Big East quarterfinal game to Seton Hall.
Since, the Bluejays have been their 3-point-shooting, backdoor-cutting, pesky-defending, we-don't-care-what-seed-we-are dynamic selves. Colorado got the first taste of this wicked concoction in the first round, and then Iowa had to take the medicine on its home court in the second.
Guarding Creighton's balanced offense is like being in one of those Halloween haunted houses where you know somebody could jump out and scare you any second, so you are flinching around every corner. A great defensive team can combat this better than a good or average defensive team, which has to rely on its own offense to rattle Creighton.
Iowa, which lost at home to Creighton in the second round, and Iowa State are very good offensive teams, and both struggled on that end, too. Iowa's Caitlin Clark was held to a season-low 15 points by Creighton, and Iowa State's Ashley Joens had 14, six below her season average. The two All-Americans combined shot 7-of-30 (23.2%) from the field against the Bluejays. That tells you how tough Creighton's defense has been.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Iowa State was 7-of-35 on contested attempts vs. Creighton. The Cyclones were about the same (8-of-40) in their win over Georgia, but the Bulldogs' offense wasn't nearly as good as Creighton's. Scoring 67 points was enough for the Cyclones against Georgia in the second round. Scoring 68 wasn't enough vs. Creighton.
Philippou: Watching the Bluejays earlier in the year in Big East play, they never impressed me as a particularly stellar defensive team. While so much has been made of their offense the last few weeks, and rightfully so, it's pretty remarkable they held Iowa and Iowa State, two typically high-powered offenses with explosive players, to an average of 65 points on 27.7% shooting from the arc (36.8% overall) -- way below their respective averages entering the game. Following Friday's loss, Joens (3 for 11) gave Creighton credit for doing "a great job defensively just staying on us, kind of knowing our personnel and how to guard." The Bluejays also finished better or even on the boards against both Iowa teams despite having no one on the roster listed taller than 6-foot-1 (I expect this to be more of an issue for them Sunday against South Carolina).
It doesn't shock me that teams are having trouble keeping up with the Bluejays' offense and their clinical execution of it, but that growth and consistency defensively and on the boards have played big roles as well.
Creme: In his interview with ESPN's Steffi Sorensen leading into the fourth quarter, Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said that the Cyclones' scouting report defense wasn't very good. Creighton was coming off a 29-point quarter, so Fennelly's frustration was warranted. But in fairness to Fennelly and his staff, how do you scout the Bluejays these days? Their positionless style makes anyone a threat. Friday, Morgan Maly led the way with 21 points on 3-of-4 3-point shooting. Tatum Rembao had 19 points. Lauren Jensen was the hero against Iowa in a game in which Maly and Rembao combined for just 10 points. Different night, different Bluejay steps to the forefront.
That third quarter was the difference with Creighton making five of its 11 3-pointers in the period to finally create some separation from Iowa State after the score was tied at halftime. The Bluejays just did what they do best: share the ball (first in the nation with 20.5 APG) and make 3's (third in total 3-pointers). They had 15 assists on their 26 field goals against the Cyclones.
Aliyah Boston took over the fourth quarter, sealing South Carolina's win. Did the Gamecocks do enough to solve their offensive concerns, or did Friday's 3-point shooting mask them?
Creme: South Carolina was better on offense in the win over North Carolina, and it was the kind of performance the Gamecocks needed. The improved shooting -- hitting seven 3-pointers -- is exactly what South Carolina needs to get back to being the favorite to win the national title. With their defense and ability on the boards, the Gamecocks don't have to show Steph Curry-type ability from deep. They just need to be a threat from the perimeter, whether it's early in the game or late, or even in one big flurry. South Carolina just needs to make some jump shots. Going 16-of-22 from the free throw line is a good sign as well.
Yet this was still a quintessential South Carolina win done with defense and rebounding. The Tar Heels were well-prepared, executed the game plan and hung in despite facing numerous situations in which the Gamecocks might have blown open the game. South Carolina was bigger, had Boston's 28 points and 22 rebounds and, as the Gamecocks often do with 6-4 Boston and 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso, dominated offensive rebounding opportunities. The 27-6 advantage in second-chance points was truly the difference.
Barnes: South Carolina's offense was better against North Carolina, but those cracks seen in the first two rounds were just papered over. Of those seven 3-pointers, six came in the first half. But as South Carolina's guards cooled, the offense continued to struggle. And while Boston ended the game with 28 points and 22 rebounds, many of her touches are coming from the opportunities she generates through offensive rebounding and not through the offense itself. This has been a problem for South Carolina all year, and a bit of a conundrum for Staley as she has tried different things to solve it.
The core problem facing the Gamecocks isn't one of execution, but one of personnel. Without consistent shooters to spread the floor, it has become far too easy to pack the lane and suffocate Boston. That hasn't stopped South Carolina beating almost every top team in the country this season, but in the tournament, a couple of bad bounces is the difference between cutting down the nets and going home early. And the Gamecocks are playing with little margin for error.
Texas' backcourt made all the difference in the Longhorns' victory over Ohio State. How did they do it?
Voepel: After the Big 12 championship game, Longhorns senior guard Joanne Allen-Taylor was in tears because winning that title meant so much to her; it was something Texas hadn't done since 2003. Allen-Taylor has been the glue player for Texas, and that showed Friday.
With freshman sensation Rori Harmon in foul trouble, the Longhorns needed Allen-Taylor to be their backcourt leader. And she was, going 7-of-11 from the field for a team-high 17 points while also providing a lot of the on-ball pressure that Harmon usually handles.
Harmon was limited to 21 minutes, and had six points, the first time since Feb. 26 that she didn't score in double figures. But when Harmon was on the floor, she made things happen. That included in the final 18 seconds, when Harmon grabbed a rebound and raced down the court, forcing the Buckeyes to foul her but also taking time off the clock. She made both free throws with 11 seconds left, and then defensively hounded Ohio State on its last possession. The Buckeyes were unable to get off a quality shot, and Texas made the Elite Eight for the second season in a row.
Pelton: Postgame, Longhorns coach Vic Schaefer noted that he'd originally recruited Allen-Taylor to Mississippi State as a point guard before ending up with her at shooting guard when he took the Texas job in 2020. Harmon's foul trouble gave Allen-Taylor an opportunity to revisit those roots on a big stage.
It's also worth highlighting Allen-Taylor's defensive effort on high-scoring Buckeyes guard Taylor Mikesell. Although Mikesell finished with 19 points, those came primarily on switches or in transition. On the 27 half-court matchups between the two players tracked by Second Spectrum, Mikesell did not score and attempted just two shots.
In news conferences Friday, several teams that will play Saturday claimed to be an underdog or under-the-radar -- except 10-seed South Dakota. What must the Coyotes do to beat Michigan?
Creme: South Dakota shut down All-American post players Shakira Austin of Ole Miss and NaLyssa Smith of Baylor, so Michigan might be the perfect next opponent. Naz Hillmon beware. Austin and Smith combined to shoot 7-of-27 with just 19 points against the Coyotes' defense, headed by 6-2 senior Hannah Sjerven. Containing Hillmon is always the first step in stopping the Wolverines. South Dakota has the formula to do just that. Why shouldn't the Yotes be confident?
Voepel: The Coyotes are a really mature group, and they don't see themselves as the underdog that everyone else does. Hillmon said she has taken notice of what they did against Austin and Smith, and knows how hard they will defend her.
What will be challenging for South Dakota, though, besides Hillmon is 6-1 guard Leigha Brown, who can use her size to post up. She had 20 points behind Hillmon's 27 in the Wolverines' second-round victory over Villanova.
Philippou: The Yotes need to keep up their hot shooting from the arc; in their last four games, they sport a 46% clip from the arc. Look for Sjerven and Chloe Lamb in particular, who combined for 5-for-9 shooting against Baylor, to get going on that front.
Rebounding will also be critical to keep the Wolverines at bay, which will be a tough task going up against the likes of Hillmon (9.6 boards per game) and Emily Kiser (8.1). Per Her Hoop Stats, Michigan boasts the fifth-best rebounding rate in the country, much better than those that Baylor and Ole Miss had.
Which other Saturday Sweet 16 matchup intrigues you?
Barnes: Inject NC State vs. Notre Dame (11:30 a.m., ESPN) into my veins! I'm so excited for this matchup. The first time these two met on Feb. 1, the Fighting Irish beat NC State 69-66 in South Bend. The Wolfpack haven't dropped a game since, and Notre Dame is riding a hot streak after bowing out early in the ACC tournament. At the Bridgeport news conferences Friday, Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey noted that the Fighting Irish were "peaking at the right time." So this game has everything: A rematch. Two hot teams. NC State's experience vs. Notre Dame's relative youth. NC State lost in the Sweet 16 last year; Notre Dame wasn't even in the tournament last year. I just really want to watch this game. Like yesterday.
Voepel: Both Louisville and Tennessee (4 p.m., ESPN2) talked Friday about playing with a chip on their shoulder -- which basically means any team can conjure any reason to have a chip. The Cardinals think they've been underestimated as a No. 1 seed, and the Lady Vols are looking for an edge without injured star Jordan Horston. But when the ball goes up, all that stuff goes out the window. Tennessee has to avoid turnovers and assert its biggest strength -- rebounding -- to have a chance at the upset. Louisville's defense has been good all season, but the Cardinals' offense has been good, too. The Lady Vols are in an underdog role now, and coach Kellie Harper will use that to motivate her squad. But the Cardinals still have that last-second loss to Miami in the ACC quarterfinal motivating them.
Pelton: Indiana and UConn (2 p.m. ET, ESPN). One of the age-old questions of the NCAA tournament is whether a scare in one round for a top seed portends an upset down the line. We saw that happen to Arizona and LSU, a pair of hosts which narrowly escaped tight first-round matchups last weekend. Whither the Huskies after a tense 52-47 win over No. 7 seed UCF last Monday?
Of course, the Hoosiers had an even greater escape of their own to hold off No. 11 seed Princeton. So perhaps this matchup is fated to prove the adage either way.