2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament
We are less than a day away from the No. 17 Kentucky Wildcats matchup with the No. 10 N.C. State Wolfpack on Monday night in the Round of 32. N.C. State is hosting the first two rounds and if their game against Maine was any indication, they should have a rowdy crowd behind them with a chance at playing in the Sweet 16.
For a little background, the Wolfpack play in the ACC and have only faced Kentucky five times total, but haven’t seen each other since 1995, when N.C. State beat the Cats 66-62 on Dec. 30.
So this is a team that we know nothing about, but I’m going to try and change that a bit. Let’s take a closer look at the three-seed, starting with their resume.
*Attached to each statistic is the team’s national rank out of 351 teams*
Overall record: 27-5 (12-4 in ACC): three-seed
Points per game: 71.3 (67th)
Opponents points per game: 60.4 (71st)
Scoring margin per 100 possessions: +16.3 (31st)
Simple RPI: 65.3 percent (7th)
Strength of schedule according to MasseyRating: 52.45 (25th)
Key wins: Syracuse +4 (25-8), Miami (FL) +2 (25-8), Belmont +15 (26-7),
Key losses: North Carolina -13 (18-15)
- N.C. State currently only uses six rotational players. A slew of injuries to key players throughout the season has destroyed the team’s depth but without much consequence to the win-loss column. Two key players, Grace Hunter – who averaged 14.6 points per game before her injury – and Erika Cassell, both tore an ACL within the span of six weeks. Cassell averaged 6.6 points and 17.4 minutes per game before the injury. Armani Hawkins played 13 games before tearing her ACL against Pittsburgh, which took away another 4.2 points and nearly 10 minutes per game. Before the season even began, graduate guard Kaila Ealey was ruled out for the year with an injury.
- But that didn’t stop them from starting the season off 21-0 and ranked seventh in the nation. However, those injuries would eventually affect them against the powerhouses of the ACC conference. The Wolfpack lost back-to-back games against North Carolina and Florida State and then fell against Notre Dame and Louisville twice. In the games against Notre Dame and Louisville, N.C. State was outscored by a combined 63 points.
- But back to the roster make-up. Against Maine in the first round of the NCAA tournament, head coach Wes Moore stuck to mostly a five-player rotation with all five starters playing at least 30 minutes.
- The backcourt consists of Aislinn Konig, Kiara Leslie, and Kai Crutchfield. Starting with Konig, who is the team’s best long-distance shooter. She takes 6.9 three-pointers per game and hits them at a clip of 40.1 percent. The 5-foot-9 junior is one of only five players in school history to make at least 200 three-pointers. She’s also a sneaky passer, leading the team in assists with 3.9 per game. Over 70 percent of her shot attempts come from beyond the arc. Basically, Kentucky should have someone on her at all times.
- Next is Kiara Leslie, arguably the team’s most important player. She led her team with 20 points on 8-15 shooting while also grabbing six boards against Maine. She leads the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game and can score from practically anywhere. At six-feet tall, she is tall enough to fight for boards but quick enough to take her defender off the dribble. She can be a bit prone to turnovers but is an excellent rebounder and solid distributor.
- Finally, we have Kai Crutchfield. The 5-foot-8 guard averages 6.1 points per game and is the least efficient scorer of her three backcourt teammates. She shot 5-10 from the field and 3-5 from deep for 14 points against Maine, but it was only the eighth time this season she topped double-digits in scoring.
- As for the frontcourt, DD Rogers and Elissa Cunane hold it down in the paint. Rogers is the team’s top rebounder with 7.8 boards per game and also converts on over 58 percent of her two-point shots. Cunane stands at 6-foot-5 and will undoubtedly give Kentucky a handful of problems in the paint and on the glass. She averages only a shade under six rebounds per game but makes for up it with 13.7 points per game on 57.6 percent shooting from inside the perimeter. Rogers is one of the better defensive rebounders in the entire country while Cunane is an incredibly efficient scorer, averaging 1.26 points per scoring attempt (39th in the nation out of over 3,000 players) by being adept at getting to the free throw line.
- The sixth-woman on this team is Kayla Jones, who averages 4.8 points per game in almost 18 minutes per game. She put up only two points in 20 minutes against Maine. At 6-foot-1, her main job is going to be crashing the glass. She pulled down six rebounds int he first round and posts an impressive defensive rebounding percentage for how much time she plays.
- N.C. State is a team that does not foul. They rank 4th in the country when it comes to opponents points off of free throws (only 12.2 percent of their opponent’s points come from the charity stripe). Kentucky isn’t a team that relies on free throws to win them games, though. The Wildcats are one of the top teams in the country when they do get to the line (74.6 percent), but only 18.2 percent of their overall points come from free throws.
- You know how I keep harping on how poor of a rebounding team the Wildcats are? Well, this next stat won’t ease those worries. N.C. State is one of the top-five teams in the country in terms of rebounding opponents misses. In fact, they rank 4th nationally in defensive rebounds per game at 31.0. Kentucky averages 34.0 total rebounds per game. Rogers and Jones both rank in the top 90th percentile in defensive rebounding rate while Cunane and Leslie both post above average defensive rebounding numbers. They have the size to dominate Kentucky on that end and it will be a true test to just how committed the Cats are to sneaking in and winning 50/50 balls off of their own misses. Kentucky is solid at crashing their own glass, but this Wolfpack team is a whole different type of beast in that area.
- They give up a lot of threes. N.C. State let Maine shoot 37 of them (although they made only 11). Out of 351 Divison I teams, they rank 343rd in opponents three-pointers attempted with 766. They’ve allowed 247 of those to go in, which ranks only slightly worse at 344th. If you’ve watched even one Kentucky game this year, you’d know they love to shoot it from deep. With Maci Morris and Rhyne Howard patrolling the perimeter, it’s hard not to hoist up as many triples as possible. The Wildcats have shot 36.7 percent from three on the season, 22nd best in the nation. Against Princeton, they converted on nine of their 18 three-point attempts. Expect the Cats to try and have a field day from deep.
- Lastly, N.C. State is not going to turn Kentucky over. The Wolfpack force only 11.4 turnovers per game, one of the lowest marks among all teams and average only 4.8 steals per game. Just for perspective, Taylor Murray records 3.3 steals per game just by herself. There isn’t one player for N.C. State that posts a steal percentage of higher than 2.0 percent. Kentucky has seven of them.
I’ll be back tomorrow with some keys to the game and how Kentucky can pull off the upset, but I feel pretty good about where the Cats are at right now. They showed perseverance through a couple of tough stretches early against Princeton and looked energized towards the end of that game. The Wolfpack can only go six deep. Kentucky has nine full rotational players. It should be a high-pressure game from start to finish.
By Zack Geoghegan on ©March 23rd, 2019 @ 1:45pm
The No. 17 and six-seeded Kentucky Wildcats knocked out the 11-seeded Princeton Tigers in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament by a score of 82-77.
The Wildcats were led by 19 points apiece from seniors Maci Morris and Taylor Murray along with 15 points from freshman Rhyne Howard.
Kentucky opened up this game with one clear goal: make life as difficult for Princeton star Bella Alarie. Through the first two quarters, they executed that goal to perfection.
Alaire shot only 3-10 from the field for six points through the first two quarters as the Wildcats were more than willing to make her teammates beat them. The only issue? The other Tigers came out knocking down shots from all over the court.
The game was close through the first 10 minutes with both teams going back-and-forth on offense. Kentucky was always a tad late when attacking Princeton’s zone defense but quickly corrected that in the second quarter. The Wildcats full-court press was a constant disruption of any offensive momentum for the Tigers. Kentucky forced nine turnovers in the first half and converted those into 10 fastbreak points.
But Princeton played sound basketball in the halfcourt when they did beat the trap and Alarie was calm for the most part when dealing with double – and often triple – teams. She still had nine rebounds and four assists in 15 first-half minutes.
10 points from Gabrielle Rush while connecting on two of her four shots from deep along with 11 points from Sydney Jordan kept Princeton afloat after the Cats forced Alarie into two fouls before the first quarter ended.
The rebounding advantage favored Princeton, 20-12, to no one’s surprise, but Kentucky did corral five massive offensive rebounds – three courtesy of Tatyana Wyatt – throughout the first two periods that ultimately led to points. Kentucky’s nine second-chance points proved vitally important compared to Princeton’s four.
At one point in the early portion of the second quarter, Princeton pulled ahead for a 27-18 lead that caused head coach Matthew Mitchell to call a timeout. Coming out of that break, the Cats would go on a 10-2 run over the next four minutes to bring themselves back into it.
Outside of Alarie, the Tigers shot 13-21 from the field in the first half and held a 37-33 advantage at the break. Kentucky shot 12-28 from the field and 4-8 from deep. Some excellent second-period defense brought the Wildcats back into the game, despite Princeton rattling off four quick points right before the half.
The Cats opened up the third quarter with a quick 5-0 run after a Morris triple and a bucket from Amanda Paschal gave them the lead back to start the second half.
Kentucky’s defense began to bury Princeton towards the end of the third period. Continuing to control Alarie as best as possible, the Cats were forcing others to score and make plays, falling right into the incredibly quick hands of Murray. Murray and Jaida Roper put on an unreal display of on-ball defense throughout the entirety of the game.
Wyatt was a brick wall down low and gathered even more offensive rebounds over Alarie while scoring a couple of big buckets. The third quarter ended with Kentucky going on a 9-0 run that concluded with great defense from Roper and a buzzer-beating triple from Morris. Heading into the final 10 minutes, Kentucky held a 61-52 lead and never looked back.
Despite Gabrielle Rush drilling shot after shot from deep (she finished 6-11 from three) and keeping the game from completely getting away from Princeton, the Cats dominated the final period.
Roper was locked in on defense, Murray was a pest attacking the bucket, and some big shots from Howard put Kentucky into the second round. The Cats will wait to face the winner of NC State and Maine until Monday with a chance to head to the Sweet 16.
By Zack Geoghegan on ©March 20th, 2019 @ 7:30pm
The bracket leak was a bit of a surprise but Kentucky’s seeding was anything but. The UK Hoops squad has been slotted as a six-seed in the Greensboro region with a first-round matchup against the Princeton Tigers. So what do we know about the Ivy League champs? Absolutely nothing! But that’s about to change right now. Let’s talk a look at who the Tigers are and what their matchup against Kentucky might look like.
*Attached to each statistic is the team’s national rank out of 351 teams*
Overall record: 22-9 (12-2 in Ivy League): 11-seed
Points per game: 70.7 (73rd)
Opponents points per game: 63.1 (126th)
Scoring margin per 100 possessions: +11.0 (68th)
Simple RPI: 57.1 percent (50th)
Strength of schedule according to MasseyRating: 42.57 (98th)
Key Wins: Quinnipiac +12 (26-6), Penn – twice (22-6)
Key Losses: George Washington -15 (10-20), Seton Hall -4 (15-15), Penn St. -8 (12-17)
- Just by looking at the resume, Kentucky has a clear advantage over this team. Princeton’s lack of impressive wins does them no favors. Their 2-1 record this season against Penn is the team’s biggest accomplishment (and make no mistake, it is impressive) and an early season win over Quinnipiac – also an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament – show they are capable of taking down good teams.
- But those key losses are bad. After beating Rider in the season opener, Princeton went on to lose seven straight games, three of them coming against the teams mentioned not far above. But I should also note that Bella Alarie – who we’ll talk about more in a minute – didn’t play a game this season until Dec. 8 against Quinnipiac. She’s basically the entire team. Just by looking at Princeton’s record, which sits at 22-9, we can decipher that they eventually turned things around. A 1-7 start ended with a 21-2 run; the two losses coming against Penn and in overtime against Yale. They’ve won 12 in a row since the Yale loss, dominating mostly mediocre Ivy League teams struggling to straddle .500 records.
- The Tigers strength of schedule (98th) doesn’t frighten the Cats at all (who sit at 44th in the same ranking) and they give up a considerable amount of points for a team that played so many subpar opponents.
- The name you need to know more than other is Bella Alarie. You might recall Jack’s recent piece about Alarie and her insane ability to score the ball. She’s put up 45 against Columbia, 38 and 31 against Yale, 41 against Dartmouth, and 33 against Penn. 12 times this season has she posted at least 20 points in a game. She also did not go one game this year without scoring at least 10 points. She leads her Princeton squad in all four categories of points at 23.0 per game (7th in the nation), rebounds with 10.4, assists with 3.3, and blocks at 2.9 (5th in nation). At 6-foot-4, she’s converted on over 52 percent of her shots this season and can step out beyond the perimeter if she needs to (13-40 from three on the season – 32.5 percent). She ranks in the 90th percentile or higher in so many categories, according to Her Hoop Stats, that it doesn’t even make sense to list them all.
- But it’s not all about Alarie. Sure, she is 100 percent the team’s best player and has dominated the stat sheet since conference play began, but the Tigers go deeper than just one incredible player. Gabrielle Rush and Carlie Littlefield are the two dynamic guards for Princeton that will give the Cats fits. They combine to average 26 points per game and both average at least 1.5 steals per game. They can bomb threes with the best of them. Rush, specifically, will do everything in her power to take upwards of 10 threes in this matchup. She’s already attempted at least 10 threes in a game eight different times this season. She shoots right at eight triples per game, connecting on a hair under 35 percent of them. Over two-thirds of her shot attempts this season have been from deep. Littlefield isn’t the same type of sharpshooter – although she’s made 36.2 percent of her threes on 3.9 attempts per game – but is much more adept at getting to the rim. She gets to the charity stripe over four times per game while connecting on over 75 percent of her freebies.
- Outside of Alarie, Rush, and Littlefield, Princeton doesn’t offer much that should scare the Wildcats. Shutting down Alarie would end this game pretty quickly, even if the other two can get hot from deep.
- The statistics show that Princeton is a solid defensive team, although the numbers are heavily inflated by the pure presence of Alarie. She’s an elite scorer, rebounder, passer, and shot blocker who rarely makes mistakes. Just by being on the floor, Princeton goes from a team that lost seven-straight to winning 12 in a row shortly after. She’s going to take 20 shots in this game and will likely make more than half of them. Despite playing in only 22 games this season, she still ranks second in the country in most overall made field goals. It’s going to be the difficulty of the shots Kentucky forces that will decide the game.
- The most notable aspect of this game will be the rebounding war. If you haven’t heard by now, Kentucky is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country – ranking 340 out of 351 in defensive rebounds per game. They are slightly above average on the offensive glass, which can be credited to crafty guards crashing after misses and consistently high energy. But on the other end, their lack of big bodies betrays them. The Cats don’t have anyone who can size up with Alarie on the glass and the Tigers other rebounding expert, Taylor Baur, has been making a living on the glass since January. Baur’s 17.2 rebounding rate ranks above the 90th percentile among all players. Princeton is a middling team in terms of rebounding and are far superior on the defensive end than the offensive end, but the size of Alarie and Baur could make it difficult for Kentucky to sneak in for unexpected boards.
- But here are a few bright signs for Kentucky. Princeton isn’t a great three-point shooting team, something that has plagued the Cats several times this season. The Tigers don’t get to the free-throw line that often, despite posting an impressively high percentage (which Kentucky needs to be careful of, as they send opponents to the line more than most teams). Princeton also allows a concerning amount of shots to go up. They rank among the bottom 150 teams (out of 351) in overall field goals attempted/made. They’ve given up 210 three-pointers this season, 297th worst in the country. Maci Morris just yelped in excitement after reading that stat.
- Here’s what I expect from Princeton. Bella Alarie is going to go off. I don’t think there is any way around that at this point. She is a matchup nightmare for anyone on Kentucky’s roster. Rhyne Howard might find herself guarding the junior the most with Morris, Tatyana Wyatt, and KeKe McKinney giving it their best effort, as well. Princeton is probably going to block a lot of shots. They won’t make many mistakes if they can break a deadly full-court press from the Wildcats. They’ll produce a balanced scoring attack. Rush and Littlefield have to play at the top of their game.
- But Kentucky is going to win, and here’s why.
KEYS TO THE GAME
- Kentucky goes nine players deep with a solidified rotation heading into the postseason. The three-headed scoring monster of Howard, Morris, and Taylor Murray is unlike anything Princeton has seen this season. Alarie might be the most talented player on the floor, but Kentucky boasts the next best three.
- The outside shot is going to be vital for Kentucky’s success. As I ran through before, Princeton is not great at defending the three and the Cats trot out four players who shoot over 35 percent from deep. I wouldn’t expect another dreadful 0-16 shooting “exhibition” from downtown as we saw in the SEC Tournament.
- Murray giving both Littlefield and Rush hell in the full-court press will dictate the pace. The two Princeton guards combine to average 4.1 turnovers per game. Murray by herself averages 3.3 steals per game and is infatuated with aggressive ball handlers who think they can outsmart her with either speed or strength. She should have an absolute field day with picking apart the Tigers in the backcourt.
- Once Princeton crosses half court and can get Alarie involved is where they can beat the Cats. It’s hard to mess up when the majority of the Tigers offense is feeding Alarie. Keeping the ball out of her hands at all times will be huge. Expect double teams, maybe even triple teams, coming her way.
- A real test will be Howard, Wyatt, and McKinney battling with the Princeton bigs on the offensive glass. All three Wildcats are above-average rebounders on the offensive glass and a big reason the team earns a good amount of second-chance points.
- My prediction is Kentucky pulls away from Princeton late in the game. There might be some rust coming out of the gate after not playing in over two weeks and the Cats have been notorious for some slow starts in conference play. But the pure talent that Kentucky puts on the court puts them above the Tigers. The bench mob for the Wildcats should dominate the weaker and less-experienced second unit of Princeton. Alarie might go off for 25 points, but if no one else tops 10 then it’s a wrap for the Ivy League champions. Maci Morris needs to come out shooting with no fear. She’s really struggled from the field the last six games (15-61 overall – 24.5 percent) and is averaging under 10 points in those outings. If she can watch that first triple splash right through the net in the opening minute, that might be all she needs to get in a groove. We know what Murray brings with her defensive intensity and rim-driving. We know that Howard is going to get her shots up. A more involved offensive attack featuring McKinney and Wyatt along with a good shooting day from Morris will be the X-factors. A matchup in the second round against the winner of NC State-Maine is on the way.