Aidan Berg

Tennessee adds 5-star recruit Julian Phillips to roster

Landon Bost/Naples Daily News/USA TODAY Network-Florida / USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee has signed forward Julian Phillips, the fourth high school All-American and seventh five-star prospect to join the Volunteers under men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Phillips is ranked among the top 18 overall prospects nationally by two recruiting services. The South Carolina native helped Link Academy in Branson, Missouri, go 33-2. Phillips had nine points, three assists, two rebounds and a steal in the McDonald’s All-American contest.

Phillips joins incoming guard B.J. Edwards as the Volunteers’ prep commitments in this year’s class along with graduate transfer guard Tyreke Key from Indiana State.

Staley leads South Carolina over UConn for second NCAA title

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS – Dawn Staley and South Carolina buttoned up on defense and won their second national championship, stifling UConn for a 64-49 victory Sunday night that ended the Huskies’ undefeated streak in title games.

Destanni Henderson scored a career-high 26 points, Aliyah Boston added 11 points and 16 rebounds, and the Gamecocks handed Geno Auriemma’s Huskies their first loss in 12 NCAA title games.

With Staley calling the shots in a $5,000 letterman jacket, South Carolina took UConn to school on the boards and capped a wire-to-wire run as the No. 1 team in the country in The Associated Press poll. The Gamecocks also won the championship in 2017 with A’ja Wilson leading the way.

This time it was Boston – the AP Player of the Year – and her fellow South Carolina post players who dominated on the game’s biggest stage. The Gamecocks outrebounded UConn by 49-24, including a 21-6 advantage on offensive boards. They also clamped down on star Paige Bueckers and the Huskies on defense, just like they did all season long.

It was South Carolina’s night from the start. The Gamecocks (35-2) jumped out to an 11-2 lead, grabbing nearly every rebound on both ends of the court. They led to 22-8 after one quarter much to the delight of their faithful fans, who made the trip to Minneapolis to be part of the sellout crowd.

UConn (30-6) trailed by 16 in the second quarter before Bueckers, a Minnesota native, got going. After having just one shot in the first quarter, she scored nine points in the second to get the Huskies within 35-27 at the half. She finished with 14.

An 8-2 run to start the third quarter put South Carolina up 43-29 before the Huskies finally started connecting from behind the arc. UConn missed its first eight 3-point attempts until Caroline Ducharme made one from the wing and Evina Westbrook followed with another to get the Huskies within 43-37.

That’s as close as they could get because of Henderson.

The senior guard had a three-point play to close the third quarter and then had the team’s first four points in the fourth to restore the double-digit lead, and the Huskies couldn’t recover.

This was UConn’s first trip to the championship game since 2016, when the Huskies won the last of four straight titles. Since then, the team has suffered heartbreaking defeats in the national semifinals, losing twice in overtime, before holding off Stanford on Friday night. The Huskies were trying to win their 12th title in the same city they won their first one in 1995.

Auriemma said Saturday that when his team had won each of its 11 titles, the Huskies entered the game as the better team. They certainly weren’t on Sunday.

It had been one of the most challenging seasons of Auriemma’s Hall of Fame career. UConn overcame losing eight players for at least two games with injury or illness, including Bueckers, who missed nearly three months with a left knee injury suffered in early December. She came back in late February but wasn’t at the same level that earned her AP Player of the Year as a freshman last season.

DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

The Gamecocks have been stalwarts on defense all season long, ranking third nationally with 50.5 points allowed per game. They were even sharper in the NCAA Tournament, holding opponents to 44.8 points entering Sunday’s finale.

Henderson had three steals, Boston blocked two shots and South Carolina forced 15 turnovers. The Gamecocks’ plus-25 rebounding margin was the second biggest ever in a title game.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies lose three seniors in Christyn Williams, Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa but still have a solid group back led by Bueckers and freshman Azzi Fudd. If the Huskies stay healthy, they’ll have a good shot to contend for next year’s title.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks lose Henderson and Victaria Saxton but have all the talent to repeat as champions.

UNC’s Bacot leaves no suspense on his title game status

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS – North Carolina front-court starter Armando Bacot didn’t so much down-play the severity of his right ankle injury as dismiss the notion that it would stop him from playing hard against Kansas in Monday night’s national championship game.

“I’m going to go all out,” the 6-foot-10 Bacot pledged on Sunday before the Tar Heels’ final practice at the NCAA Tournament. “It’s the championship game, so I’m going to play my best and I’m going to go out there and fight.”

Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis said Bacot, who twisted his ankle in a crowd of players near the baseline during the second half of Saturday night’s national semifinal victory over Duke, was slated to participate in a light practice later Sunday after X-rays came back negative.

“Obviously he’s a little sore. But he was walking around and feeling good and was very encouraged with the amount of swelling from his ankle sprain,” Davis said. “He’s ready to play tomorrow night.

At least mentally.

UNC guard Caleb Love said Bacot all but assured teammates after Saturday night’s game that he was playing and that there would be no “day-to-day” suspense or game-time decision.

“He told us he didn’t have a choice but to play,” Love said. “That goes to show you how tough he is. Armando’s one of the toughest dude’s I know. He’ll put his life on the line for this game. So, I feel like he’s ready and we’re going to pick him up.”

For Davis, Bacot’s insistence on playing is a welcome development. He averages 16.3 points, 13.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.

“It’s just plain and simple,” Davis said. “We’re a better team with him on the floor.”

FULL CIRCLE

Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot was almost 11 years old when he was ordered by his parents to go to bed at halftime of the Jayhawks’ last triumphant national title game against Memphis in 2008.

“That’s something that I still give them trouble for,” said Lightfoot, a sixth-year senior who was born in Kansas City and lived there until age 5 before moving to Arizona.

He joked that he’d be getting his revenge on Monday night, when Kansas seeks its fourth NCAA title in its matchup with North Carolina in the Superdome.

“They’re actually here for this one,” Lightfoot said of his parents. “So, I told them they have to go home at halftime.”

Jayhawks guard Christian Braun, a junior from Burlington, Kansas, also missed the second half of that 2008 title game. He was almost 7 years old and tried to watch the game, but fell asleep by halftime.

WILD SCENE

In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, authorities should be well prepared for wild street celebrations to break out – bonfire and all – should the Tar Heels knock of Kansas.

A semifinal victory over historical in-state rival Duke sent an estimated 40,000 jubilant North Carolina fans streaming into the streets on Saturday night following a tense, back-and-forth game that took on added significance because it ended the career of retiring Hall-of-Fame Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“I kind of wished I was back at Chapel Hill,” Love said after seeing footage of celebrations near campus. “It was great to see … that we create memories for the students back at home.”

Many fans congregated outside a stretch of bars and restaurants at the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets, along the edge of campus, where some of them built and ignited a bonfire.

Some of those revelers climbed lights poles and trees, while others shot off fireworks.

“I was kind of jealous because I got 20 or 30 Snapchats of people rushing Franklin and all the parties and stuff that was going on at school,” Bacot said, referring to videos posted on social media. “We play in these big games and obviously we’re a huge factor in what has happened, but I’m just happy for all the students and all my friends that get this experience. … Hopefully, we can get this win on Monday and it’ll be another party on Franklin Street.”

Town manager Maurice Jones told the Charlotte Observer that 10 people were treated for injuries and four were taken to a hospital to be treated for injuries that were not serious.

FOND FAREWELL

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver congratulated Krzyzewski on his long, illustrious coaching career in a statement released on Sunday.

“The NBA congratulates Mike Krzyzewski on his record-setting coaching career,” Silver said. “In 42 years as head coach at Duke and more than a decade as a head coach for USA Basketball, his leadership and mentoring have had a profound impact on countless NBA players, coaches and executives, including me. We thank Coach K for all that he has done for the game of basketball.”

RATINGS BONANZA

CBS announced that the historic first matchup of arch in-state rivals Duke and North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, buoyed further by the Krzyzewski storyline, was the most-viewed NCAA Men’s Final Four telecast on any network since North Carolina beat Oregon in the 2017 semifinals on its way to the national title.

The UNC-Duke game had an average of 16.3 million viewers, the network said.

CBS said the first semifinal game, in which Kansas beat Villanova, had an average audience of 10.3 million viewers.

Louisville beats Michigan 62-50 to return to Final Four

William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports
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WICHITA, Kan. – Hailey Van Lith scored 22 points, Olivia Cochran made a series of crucial baskets in the final minutes, and Louisville held off Michigan 62-50 in a physical game Monday night to return to the Final Four for the fourth time in program history.

Chelsie Hall added 15 points and Emily Engstler balanced out a poor shooting night with 16 rebounds and some big plays on defense, helping the top-seeded Cardinals (29-4) advance to face South Carolina next weekend in Minneapolis.

The No. 3 seed Wolverines (25-7) were within 52-50 with less than 3 minutes to go when the Cardinals, using some nifty ball movement to get out of a half-court trap, found Cochran for an easy layup. Then at the other end, Michigan star Naz Hillmon was called for charging, and Cochran added another bucket to give Louisville some breathing room.

The Cardinals finished off their second win over the Wolverines this season from the foul line.

Hillmon finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Wolverines, who held their first three tourney opponents under 50 points to reach their first regional final, but were unable to hold down the Cardinals for the full 40 minutes.

The start resembled the two teams’ matchup in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge – much to the Wolverines’ chagrin – as coach Kim Barnes Arico’s team missed its first eight shots and allowed a heavily pro-Louisville crowd to get energized.

Unlike that game in January, though, when the Cardinals unspooled a 25-2 run spanning the first two quarters and cruised to a lopsided 70-48 victory, the Maize and Blue decided to put up a fight with the Final Four at stake.

Maddie Nolen came off the bench to drop two 3-pointers. Hillmon went to work inside, getting easy buckets at the rim when she wasn’t getting the Cardinals in foul trouble. And talented freshman Laila Phelia, who perhaps best epitomizes the direction of a program on the rise, managed to shake her defender for a couple of easy baskets.

The problem for Michigan soon became turnovers – hardly surprising given the Cardinals had forced more than 20 a game in the tournament. So while the Wolverines were stingy in the half court defensively, Louisville capitalized on 11 turnovers with 14 points in transition, and that helped Jeff Walz’s crew take a 30-27 lead into the break.

The biggest reason Michigan was able to hang around despite 22 turnovers and atrocious 3-point shooting was a massive disparity at the foul line. The Wolverines were 15 of 20 on their free throws while the Cardinals shot just five total until they were sent there for four more in the final minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan has made big strides under Barnes Arico, reaching the Sweet 16 last season and getting within one win of its first Final Four this season. Young players such as Phelia show there is much more to come in Ann Arbor, too.

Louisville has never won a national championship despite becoming a perennial contender under Walz over the past 15 seasons. The Cardinals get another shot to finally cut down the nets.

UConn reaches 14th straight Final Four, tops NC State in 2OT

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Paige Bueckers scored 15 of her 27 points in the two overtimes, and UConn beat North Carolina State 91-87 to extend the Huskies’ record women’s Final Four streak to 14 straight on Monday night.

The Huskies, who had been 0-for-5 in overtime in the NCAA Tournament, will face top seed Stanford on Friday night in the national semifinals in Minneapolis.

Bueckers, who grew up 10 miles outside the site of the Final Four, scored the first five points in the second overtime to lift the Huskies (29-5).

“Two days ago I said, `Win or go home’, but we won and I’m still going home,” Bueckers said. “This is crazy. I’m just so excited no matter the location, no matter where it is.”

The sensational sophomore, who missed two months this season with a knee injury, once again looked like the player who was the AP Player of the Year in 2021. She was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Bridgeport Region.

“Thank God Paige came back, because she just gives everybody so much confidence and then everybody just kind of played and everybody took turns making plays,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It was just an amazing basketball game and it was a great showcase for our sport.”

With N.C. State within 86-84 in the second OT, Christyn Williams hit the second of two free throws and then a layup with 21 seconds left to give UConn a 89-85 lead.

Jakia Brown-Turner, who hit a 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds in the first overtime to tie the game, then made a layup to get the Wolfpack within two, but Williams converted a layup off the inbounds to seal the win.

UConn had lost senior center Dorka Juhasz to a forearm injury earlier in the game.

“This team has been through so much and it’s only made us stronger,” Bueckers said. “And if we see one of our sisters go down, we’re going to do it for her. We all love each other, we’re all so close. It just signifies what we’ve been through all year. Whole bunch of adversity, highs and lows, ups and downs. We stayed composed and we stayed together.”

Brown-Turner finished with 20 points for N.C. State (32-4).

Both teams had chances to win in the final 30 seconds of regulation. UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa was fouled with 28 seconds left and missed both free throws. On the ensuing possession, Diamond Johnson dribbled down the clock and drove before passing it back out to Kai Crutchfield, who was way off on a deep 3-pointer from the wing.

N.C. State was trying to reach the national semifinals for the second time in school history. The Wolfpack made it that far in 1998, beating the Huskies in the Elite Eight that season to advance. None of the current roster was even alive then.

Crutchfield, Raina Perez and Kayla Jones all came back this year using their extra COVID-19 season that was granted by the NCAA to try and lift the Wolfpack to new heights. They succeeded, advancing farther than the team had in 24 years.

The Huskies dealt with injuries and COVID-19 issues all season and had their most losses since 2012, including their first conference defeat in nine years and their first loss to an unranked team since 2012.

Things have been looking up for UConn since the team started getting healthy, starting with Bueckers.

This was the first double-OT game in women’s NCAA Tournament history in the regional final or later.

INJURED HUSKY

UConn suffered a major blow when Juhasz went down in the first half with a scary-looking injury just above her left wrist. She was fouled on a putback attempt and landed awkwardly when she tried to put her hands down to brace her fall.

Juhasz was on the floor in tears and was helped back to the locker room with her team up by seven points. The Huskies extended the advantage to 10 before N.C. State cut it to 34-28 at the half.

She returned to the bench at the start of the fourth quarter dressed in warmups with with her arm in a sling.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

UConn: Beat Mercer in the opening round, UCF in the second round and Indiana in the Sweet 16.

N.C. State: Topped Longwood in the first round, Kansas State in the second round and Notre Dame in the regional semifinals.

TILL WE MEET AGAIN

This was the first meeting between the schools since the 2006-07 season. They are scheduled to play the next two seasons.

“I agreed to a series with UConn starting next year,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “Coming back here next year, then they’ll come to us the following year.”

Defending champion Stanford tops Texas 59-50 in Elite Eight

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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SPOKANE, Wash. – Lexie Hull scored 20 points in front of her hometown crowd, Haley Jones added 18 points, including four key free throws in the closing moments, and defending national champion Stanford toppled No. 2 seed Texas on Sunday night for a return trip to the women’s Final Four.

The Cardinal (32-3) will play in the national semifinal for the 15th time in program history, facing either North Carolina State or Connecticut in Minneapolis.

The Spokane Regional final was tightly contested throughout and reinforced the resolve that Stanford was missing earlier in the season when it lost to Texas at home on the night it received its rings from the 2021 championship.

Stanford (32-3) was the tougher team this time around, especially in the second half.

Hull made a key 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter and had a three-point play that gave Stanford a 53-48 lead with 2:29 remaining. Texas never got closer than two in the final moments and Stanford spent the final seconds celebrating around Hull and her twin sister Lacie.

Hull made 7-of-14 shots on a night scoring was at a premium. Jones was just 4-of-11 shooting but made 10-of-11 free throws and Stanford was 18 of 22 at the foul line. Jones also grabbed 12 rebounds.

Cameron Brink added 10 points for Stanford, all in the third quarter, and the Cardinal extended the longest win streak in the country to 24 games.

Texas (29-7) lost in the Elite Eight for the second straight season; last year’s unexpected run as a No. 6 seed stopped with South Carolina. Joanne Allen-Taylor led Texas with 15 points before fouling out. Rori Harmon, the Big 12 freshman of the year, was limited to 14 points and Audrey Warren added 11 points off the bench. Texas’ second-longest win streak in the country snapped at 14 games.

Stanford’s return trip to the Final Four keeps alive the hope of being the first team other than Connecticut to repeat as national champions since Tennessee in 2007 and 2008. But the Cardinal had to get through the fourth quarter – both Sunday and in November.

Texas thrived in the fourth in the first meeting, trailing by five to start the quarter that day before outscoring the Cardinal by 10 for a 61-56 victory.

On Sunday, Texas also trailed by five to start the fourth and pulled within three on an Allen-Taylor jumper. It took Stanford nearly three minutes into the quarter before Lexie Hull hit an open 3-pointer from the wing – just the third 3 of the game of the Cardinal.

Jones pushed the lead to 50-43, but Warren’s jumper and three free throws cut it to 50-48 with 3:35 left.

That’s when Hull drove to the rim and scored while being fouled for what proved to be the decisive points. The Cardinal made 6 of 8 free throws in the final two minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Texas: The Longhorns were in the Elite Eight for the 11th time in program history, but have not been to the Final Four since 2003. Texas coach Vic Schaefer has coached in the Elite Eight in five straight tournaments but has lost his last three regional final games.

Stanford: The Cardinal have not lost since falling to South Carolina on Dec. 21. They may get a chance at seeing the Gamecocks again, but it would be in the national title game.