This year has certainly been full of many surprise teams that have great potential to reach Dallas next week. Two of those programs, Utah and LSU, have a great chance to do just that. After the upset of top seed Indiana by the nine seed Miami Hurricanes, both the Utes and Tigers are now favorites to emerge as the Greenville 2 regional winner.
Picture Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Utah Utes’ (27-4, 15-3 Pac-12): win over then #3 Stanford Cardinal two weeks ago to claim their first ever Pac-12 title seemed to be the highest point of an unforgettable season in Salt Lake City. However, after defeating a resilient Princeton team in the second round, Utah finds themselves one win away from matching their deepest tournament run, and notching the winningest record in program history.
Led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili, the Utes have shown they possess the offense prowess and defense grit to win both high and low scoring games. Pili has scored over 60 points on 67% shooting in just her first two NCAA tournament career games. How fitting would it be if the Utes add their third Elite Eight appearance and possibly first Final Four appearance to their history setting season.
Standing in the way of that history is Kim Mulkey and LSU (30-2, 16-2 SEC). The Tigers are led by sensational play of sophomore transfer Angel Reese and emerging senior Alexis Morris. LSU rolled through their first two tourney games with double digits wins.
LSU has taken their fair share of criticism regarding their strength of record, which is 88th in the nation. However, in their second round game against a Big Ten battle tested Michigan team, Mulkey’s squad showed a high level of energy and physicality against a taller Wolverine team. Their level of defense harassed Michigan’s guards and is what critics believed the Tigers were lacking all year long, especially after their embarrassing drugging against South Carolina.
Picture credit: Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
Mulkey seems to be lightyears ahead of rebuilding the program at LSU with logging over 50 wins in just her second season and now appearing in her 16th Sweet Sixteen. Mulkey said winning just one more game from last year’s tourney results would show that the program has improved. Now in their first sweet sixteen appearance in nine years, LSU looks to make it two more wins and a trip to the Elite Eight.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The double-double threat from Pili and Reese will be on wide display. Both players exude physicality and are tenacious when it comes to being the spark for their respected teams. Pili is a forward who uses sheer strength and force to assert her presence in the paint and outside the ark, while Reese’s length and athleticism allows her to crash the glass and affect opponents shots. Both will also be the focus of defensive efforts.
Outside of the play of Reese and Pili, team rebounding, winning 50-50 balls, and free throw shooting will be the difference in who prevails in today’s matchup. In addition the guard play of both teams could create separation needed to win what is expected to be a close, back and forth matchup.
For Utah to prevail, their guards must aid Pili by crashing the boards and taking care of the ball. After a dismal 20 turnovers against Princeton, the Utes will have to limit that factor significantly if they want a chance to win. Sophomore guards Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson will be critical in complimenting Pili’s performance. Kneepkens ability to hit beyond the arc will help spread the defensive look LSU presents and open the lane for Pili to operate.
LSU showed a near perfect, textbook defensive effort against Michigan. Their ability to limit the Wolverines' to tough shot selection and isolated ball play disrupted any offensive flow, and they did it for all 40 minutes. Although Reese’s averages are off the charts this year, the Tigers’ defense, particularly with Morris, Sophomore guard Kateri Poole, and Freshman guard Flau’jae Johnson is the factor that could carry LSU all the way to Dallas.