Expansion: Women’s NCAA field features inaugural First Four

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 05 Women's - Charleston Southern at Florida State
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Florida State coach Sue Semrau has always been a fan of adding teams to the women’s NCAA Tournament. She is thrilled it happened this season, giving her late-developing Seminoles the opportunity to be a part of history.

Florida State (17-13) is one of the schools participating in the inaugural women’s First Four after the NCAA expanded the tournament field to 68 teams, one of the few tangible changes made to address inequities highlighted last year between the men’s and women’s tournaments.

The First Four has been a staple of the men’s NCAA tourney since 2011.

“Had it been 64, I would have been extremely nervous,” Semrau said of her program’s chances of reaching its ninth consecutive tournament.

Instead, she and the other three at-large First Four participants – Missouri State, DePaul and Dayton – and four automatic qualifiers in Longwood, Mount St. Mary’s, Howard and Incarnate Word will play Wednesday and Thursday to advance into the first round.

That hasn’t always been the case for the women.

Disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments were highlighted last year during the pandemic-altered events, leading the NCAA to make several changes. The enhancements for the women included hotel rooms, dining, training equipment and expanding the tournament field.

Semrau has worked on issues of equality in the college game for years and is gratified to see change.

“Why not?” the coach asked rhetorically about the women’s expanded field.

Unlike the men, who play all their First Four games in Dayton, Ohio, the four women’s games will be held at region sites where the winner’s first-round opponent will play.

For Florida State, that means a trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to take on Missouri State. Not that it mattered to the Seminoles, who seemed like a longshot to be even playing in the NCAAs when they 10-10 in early February. But they won seven of their last 10 to get in.

“Being one of those 68, it just means a lot to us and we know that we’re going to keep working,” Florida State guard Morgan Jones said.

It also means a lot to Longwood.

Even though the Lancers received an automatic bid after winning their first Big South Tournament, they are looking forward for the chance to make more history as one of the teams in the First Four field.

Longwood coach Rebecca Tillett said the town of Farmville, Virginia, gave the team a parade for winning the tournament.

“I can’t imagine what it would be” for an NCAA Tournament win, she chuckled during a phone interview.

Tillett has heard those who wonder if automatic qualifiers like Longwood should be part of the First Four.

“Those are good questions,” she said. “But we’re happy to be part of it against an evenly matched team.”

Incarnate Word coach Jeff Dow told his players after their First Four assignment came up on TV, “You realize we’re the first of the entire tournament?”

“They were excited about that,” Dow said.

A look at the First Four matchups:

WEDNESDAY’S GAMES

Teams: Incarnate Word (13-16) vs. Howard (20-9).

Where: Columbia, South Carolina.

About Incarnate Word: After winning just five Southland Conference games in the regular season, Incarnate Word won four straight at the league tournament to win its first-ever title. Jaaucklyn Moore leads the team with 17.5 points a game and 42 steals.

About Howard : Howard won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament for the first time in 21 years. Sophomore Destiny Howell leads the Bison at 12.9 points a game. She had a career-best 25 points in the MEAC title game win.

Up Next: Winner will face overall No. 1 seed South Carolina (29-2) in the Greensboro Region

Teams: DePaul (22-10) vs. Dayton (25-5).

Where: Ames, Iowa

About DePaul: The Blue Demons finished fourth in the Big East. It’s streak of 18 straight NCAA berths ended last year and few thought the Blue Demons would get in. Now, fans can watch one of the country’s top freshmen in forward Aneesah Morrow, who leads the nation in double doubles and rebounds per game.

About Dayton: The Atlantic 10 regular-season champs have held opponents to 54.7 points a game this season and will their hands full with DePaul, whose scoring average of 88.3 points a game leads the country.

Up Next: The winner faces sixth seed Georgia (20-9) in the Greensboro Region.

THURSDAY’S GAMES

Teams: Mount St. Mary’s (16-12) vs. Longwood (21-11)

Where: Raleigh, North Carolina

About Mount St. Mary’s: Won the Northeast Conference tournament crown for a second straight season. Mount St. Mary’s forward Kendall Bresee led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. She averaged 17.4 points a game this season.

About Longwood: Forward Akila Smith led the team in rebounds (7.8 per game) and blocks (93). She was also second on the Lancers with 16.8 points a game.

Up Next: Winner will face North Carolina State (29-3), the top seed of the Bridgeport Region.

Teams: Florida State (17-13) vs. Missouri State (24-7)

Where: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

About Florida State: The Seminoles strong finish included upsets over ranked opponents and NCAA teams in Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Guard Morgan Jones leads Florida State with 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.

About Missouri State: Finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference. They are led by Abi Jackson, who tops the team with 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds a game.

Up Next: Winner faces sixth seed Ohio State (23-6) in the Spokane Region

Butler’s block seals Florida State’s OT win over No. 6 Duke

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State let a late lead evaporate in regulation. Given another chance in overtime, the Seminoles got it done against No. 6 Duke.

RayQuan Evans made a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left in overtime, John Butler blocked Wendell Moore Jr.’s driving attempt in the lane with 2 seconds remaining, and Florida State stunned Duke 79-78 on Tuesday night.

Florida State (11-5, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) led by nine in the second half but ended up needing Evans’ driving layup high off the glass with 2 seconds left to send the game to overtime. The Seminoles held on for their first win over a ranked Duke team since Jan. 10, 2017, and their 14th win over an AP Top 25 team in the last four seasons.

“I thought our effort was at a level 5 tonight, offensively and defensively,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “It took a tremendous effort on our kids’ part.”

Caleb Mills had 16 of his 18 points in the second half and overtime for Florida State, which won its fourth straight game. Butler, a freshman, scored a career-high 14 points, and Naheem McLeod had season highs of nine points and seven rebounds for the Seminoles.

Paolo Banchero had 20 points and 12 rebounds, the fourth straight game the freshman has scored 20 or more, and Mark Williams had 15 points and seven rebounds for Duke (14-3, 4-2).

Duke trailed 59-50 with 6:53 remaining, but a 3-pointer by Moore kicked off a furious rally by the Blue Devils, who went ahead 67-65 on Williams’ dunk with 30 seconds to go. Banchero scored seven points during the closing stretch and assisted on two dunks by Williams. Moore finished with 13 points.

“That was just a tremendous basketball game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Two teams that just played their hearts out. I thought it was the most physical game we’ve been in.”

Butler made 5 of 8 shots from the floor and 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

Evans and Anthony Polite were quiet early, scoring two combined points in the first half for Florida State. Polite finished with nine points and five assists, while Evans had six crucial points and five assists.

A week ago, it was Evans who also drove the lane in the final seconds of regulation, drawing a foul and sinking two free-throw attempts as Florida State knocked off Miami. This time he drove again, and his shot helped secure a signature win.

“I just think in the moment I did what the team needed me to do,” Evans said.

INJURY REPORT

Duke starting guard Trevor Keels went down with what Krzyzewski said was a calf injury with 10:11 left in regulation. Keels had nine points on 3-of-11 shooting.

Florida State’s Tanor Ngom played for the first time since Nov. 24 against Boston University. Ngom took part in warmups and played the final 1:27 of the first half, pulling down a rebound. He had missed nine straight games.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Duke lost for the second time this month, both to Sunshine State teams. They were beaten at home by Miami on Jan. 8. The Blue Devils could slip a little but will likely stay in the top 10 if they beat Syracuse this weekend.

THE TAKEAWAY

Duke: The Blue Devils had 15 turnovers and were outrebounded 42-37.

Florida State: The Seminoles had nine steals, held Duke to 2 of 13 from the floor to start the second half and won their 13th straight overtime game.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Syracuse on Saturday.

Florida State: Hosts North Florida on Thursday.

Carter, Reese help rally South Carolina over Florida State

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ROCK HILL, S.C.- James Reese V and Devin Carter combined for 23 second-half points and South Carolina overcame a 16-point deficit to edge Florida State 66-65 on Sunday.

Carter’s bucket with three minutes left gave the Gamecocks (7-2) the lead for good and they held on when Malik Osborne missed a wide-open 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Carter finished with 16 points and a team-high seven rebounds. Reese added 13 points with three 3-pointers and Wildens Leveque had 10 points. The Gamecocks were without second-leading scorer Jermaine Cousinard (12.1), who was dealing with an ankle injury. He has missed two of the Gamecocks’ last three games with injuries.

Osborne led the Seminoles (5-4), who lost their third straight, with 15 points with three 3-pointers plus nine rebounds. Caleb Mills added 13 points.

Carter and Reese put together scoring streaks in the second half to get the Gamecocks their first lead since the opening minutes. Carter scored seven unanswered points and a few minutes later Reese followed with a 10-0 run including a pair of 3-pointers and a steal and layup to put the Gamecocks up 54-50. The Seminoles tied it with 3:25 remaining before Carter’s go-ahead basket.

Florida State outscored the Gamecocks 23-5 over seven minutes to take a 27-11 lead and stayed ahead by double figures until South Carolina got a 12-3 run with seven points from Carter to cut the Seminoles’ lead to 36-30 by halftime.

Each team committed 17 turnovers. The Gamecocks outscored Florida State 38-20 in the paint, making up for a a 10-of-20 free-throw showing compared to the Seminoles’ 21-of-28.

The neutral site game was part of the No Room for Racism Classic.

South Carolina is next host to Allen on Tuesday while Florida State is home against Lipscomb on Wednesday.

Gonzaga is No. 1 in preseason AP Top 25; UCLA, Kansas next

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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Gonzaga carried a No. 1 ranking all last season before falling a win short of becoming college basketball’s first unbeaten national champion in 45 years.

Mark Few’s Bulldogs start this season in the same position, hoping to complete that final step this time around.

The Zags were the runaway top choice in The Associated Press Top 25 men’s college basketball preseason poll released Monday. They earned 55 of 63 first-place votes to easily outdistance No. 2 UCLA, which earned the other eight. Kansas, Villanova and Texas rounded out the top five, while reigning national champion Baylor checked in at No. 8.

The Zags have accomplished just about every milestone possible in 23 years under Few other than cutting down the nets on the final Monday night of the season. They came close to completing the first unbeaten run since 1976 last year with a wire-to-wire No. 1 team, only to fall to the Bears in a one-sided final in Indianapolis.

Now they’ll try again.

“It is quite an honor to be selected preseason No. 1 for the second consecutive year,” Few said in a statement to the AP. “Our returning players realize the challenge of playing up to that level all year and look forward to it.”

Gonzaga lost AP All-Americans Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs to the NBA, but second-team selection Drew Timme (19.0 points, 7.0 rebounds) and starting guard Andrew Nembhard return. The Zags also bring in a top recruiting class featuring the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in 7-footer Chet Holmgren and a five-star guard in Hunter Sallis.

Going back to the 2019-20 season, the Zags have now been ranked in the top three for 32 straight polls, with 22 of those at No. 1.

THE TOP TIER

Third-year coach Mick Cronin has UCLA on a fast climb.

Leading scorer Johnny Juzang (16.0 ppg) headlines a Bruins roster that returns nearly intact after last year’s run from the First Four to the Final Four, where they lost to Gonzaga on a half-court shot in an overtime classic.

They are starting with their first top-10 preseason ranking since 2009 and their first top-10 ranking in any AP poll since spending 13 weeks there during the 2016-17 season.

“If we taught anybody anything last year,” Cronin said this month, “your seed or your ranking does not matter come tournament time.”

Kansas has the program’s 10th straight preseason top-10 ranking, followed by the Wildcats and Longhorns, who open their first season under Chris Beard with the program’s highest preseason ranking since 2010.

THE CHAMPS

Baylor has a second straight top-10 preseason ranking despite losing four starters from last year’s title winner, including AP All-Americans Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell. The Bears will try to join Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) as the only schools to win consecutive titles since UCLA’s run of seven straight from 1967-73.

“As we’ve talked with our team,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said, “we have a unique opportunity.”

BLUEBLOODS BACK?

Duke and Kentucky are starting with their typically high rankings after seasons unlike many in their tradition-rich histories.

The ninth-ranked Blue Devils are playing the final season under retiring Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. They’re coming off a 13-11 season that included missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.

The 10th-ranked Wildcats are right behind them after a 9-16 season, the program’s first losing record since 1988-89.

Then there’s North Carolina, which made the NCAA Tournament but was inconsistent all season and out of the Top 25 before Christmas. The Tar Heels open at No. 19 in their first season under Hubert Davis, promoted after the retirement of Hall of Famer Roy Williams in April.

WELCOME BACK

St. Bonaventure is ranked for the first time in more than five decades. The Bonnies from the Atlantic 10 are No. 23, marking the first time they have been ranked since January 1971. That season was also the last time the program was ranked in the preseason (No. 20).

CONFERENCE WATCH

The Big Ten and Southeastern conferences have a national-best five ranked teams each.

The Big Ten has No. 6 Michigan, No. 7 Purdue, No. 11 Illinois, No. 17 Ohio State and No. 21 Maryland. The SEC has No. 14 Alabama, No. 16 Arkansas, No. 18 Tennessee and No. 22 Auburn joining Kentucky.

The ACC is next up with four, with No. 20 Florida State and No. 25 Virginia joining Duke and UNC. The Big 12 has its Kansas-Texas-Baylor trio, while the Pac-12 (UCLA and No. 13 Oregon), Big East (Villanova and No. 24 Connecticut) and American Athletic Conference (No. 12 Memphis and No. 15 Houston) are the others with multiple Top 25 teams.

WATCH LIST

The top unranked teams are all from power conferences, headlined by Michigan State as the leading vote-getter. Next up is Indiana under first-year coach Mike Woodson, Southern California and Arizona under new coach Tommy Lloyd.

Michigan goes to the paint to top FSU 76-58

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INDIANAPOLIS — What was touted as the marquee matchup in the Sweet 16 turned into a dud.

For everyone but Michigan, that is.

Seven-foot-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson had 14 points and eight rebounds and the top-seeded Wolverines took the inside route to the Elite Eight, pounding away in the paint Sunday for a 76-58 takedown of surprisingly helpless Florida State.

Franz Wagner had 13 points and 10 rebounds for Michigan. The Wolverines scored their first 30 points of the second half from close range to turn this game into a blowout and lead coach Juwan Howard and Co. to a victory in the only “chalk” meeting between a 1 and 4 seed of the second weekend.

Michigan (23-4) moved to a regional final for the first time since 2018 under John Beilein, whose departure a year later led to Howard’s hiring. The Wolverines will play the winner of Sunday’s UCLA-Alabama game.

They decimated Florida State’s inside defense. The evening’s most telling stat was points in the paint: Michigan 50, Florida State 28.

“We basically knew how they were going to play us all game with fronting the post and switching everything,” Wagner said. “We knew what to expect and did that in practice. And I think we did a really good job of not allowing them to speed us up.”

The Wolverines created havoc on the other end, too.

They forced Florida State so off the mark that the Seminoles didn’t score their 20th point until M.J. Walker (10 points) hit a jumper with 27 seconds left in the first half.

Other lowlights for the Seminoles:

– 14 turnovers, including 10 in the first half that led to 16 Michigan points.

– No 3-pointers over the first 24 minutes, and only 5 of 20 for the game; four of the makes came from Malik Osborne, who led the Seminoles with 12 points.

– Foul trouble for Walker, Anthony Polite and RaiQuan Gray. Adding to the trouble, Walker, the team’s leading scorer this season, rolled his ankle at the 14-minute mark of the second half. By the time he came back eight minutes later, the Seminoles (18-7) trailed by 19.

– The offense was held under 60 points for the first time this season, and it flashed about as much fluidity as coach Leonard Hamilton, who limped around on the sideline in a walking boot; he ruptured his Achilles tendon while stepping off the bus last week.

“I think they were the best version of Michigan tonight,” Hamilton said. “Even though I thought we could have played a little better, I’m not sure Michigan didn’t have a lot to do with our inability to play as well as we have sometimes.”

The Wolverines have big men in Dickinson and 6-9 Wagner, the likes of whom FSU hasn’t faced much, even as its long, athletic bunch took the program to its third straight Sweet 16.

Dickinson also blocked two shots. He was a constant presence underneath, forcing Florida State, the team listed by analytics guru Kenpom as having the tallest average height in the nation, to twist and turn and bend and force shots up from inside the paint.

And from outside? They won their first two March Madness games despite making a grand total of six 3-pointers. They’ll leave Indy with 11, thanks mainly to Osborne, who was the only Seminole to make more than one in this blowout.

FSU went on a mini-tear when Osborne and Polite made back-to-back 3s to trim Michigan’s lead to five early in the second half.

But Michigan scored the next seven points during a stretch that also included Walker’s injury. The game never got that close again.

Driving the lane and making the extra pass underneath, the Wolverines made 11 of their first 13 shots in the second half. Seven of their 19 assists came from big men Dickinson (two) and Wagner (five).

The closing minutes were pretty much a Michigan party in the quarter-filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse, with the Wolverines fans shouting “Let’s Go Blue” as the clock ticked down.

They are adjusting to life without injured guard Isaiah Livers – and becoming comfortable carrying the banner for the Big Ten, which brought nine teams to March Madness and now has only one.

A pretty good one, it turns out.

“Michigan’s had a lot of success its basketball program,” said Howard, who went to three Elite Eights as a player in the Fab Five days. “It’s beautiful to see all the hard work is paying off this year.”

LIVERS UPDATES

Howard didn’t offer much more than he has in the past on Livers’ status. “Out indefinitely,” he said. Asked if that meant out for the rest of the season, he responded, “Out indefinitely.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Florida State freshman Scottie Barnes is projected as an NBA lottery pick if he chooses to go that route. He finished with eight points and three assists on 4-for-11 shooting.

Florida State beats Colorado, reaches 3rd straight Sweet 16

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INDIANAPOLIS — Florida State barely reveled in its return to the Sweet 16 – exactly as Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton wanted.

Anthony Polite scored a career-high 22 points and No. 4 seed Florida State pulled away in the second half to beat Colorado 71-53 Monday night and advance to the regional semifinal for the third straight NCAA Tournament.

“These guys are pretty focused,” Hamilton said. “An indication is that nobody was jumping up and down and high-fiving and getting overly excited in the locker room. Everybody was calm, focused – like we’ve been here before. That’s the signs of a team maturing.”

Florida State (18-6) advanced to face East region No. 1 seed Michigan, which knocked out the Seminoles in the 2018 Elite Eight.

Polite had never scored more than 15 points in a game, but the junior made 8 of 12 shots, including 4 of 7 3-pointers.

“It’s probably my best game, definitely, statistics-wise,” Polite said. “I feel like I’m going to keep giving my effort at 100%, keep on coming out with a defensive mentality. Seeing the shots go in is just going to boost my confidence.”

Hamilton – recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon – again wore a boot as he walked the sideline. His Seminoles shot 53% from the field.

D’Shawn Schwartz scored 13 points for fifth-seeded Colorado (23-9), which shot 36% overall. McKinley Wright IV, Colorado’s leading scorer for the season with more than 15 points per contest, finished with 10 on 4-of-12 shooting.

Colorado was coming off a 96-73 victory over Big East Tournament champion Georgetown and was seeking its first Sweet 16 trip since 1969.

“We just lost the season we had, which was such a special season with such special young men in that locker room,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “Seven unbelievable seniors. The most connected and one of the closest groups I’ve ever coaches.”

The Buffaloes shot poorly through most of the first half and trailed 20-13 two minutes before the break. Wright’s tip-in at the buzzer cut Florida State’s lead to 24-20 at the half. It was only his second basket of the game.

Colorado trimmed its deficit to a point on a 3-pointer by Schwartz, but Florida State quickly answered with a thunderous alley-oop dunk by Sardaar Calhoun.

Calhoun broke away for a fast-break dunk, then Scottie Barnes drained a contested runner to push Florida State’s lead back to seven.

Minutes later, Balsa Koprivica dunked, was fouled and made the free throw to put Florida State up nine.

Polite hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game with six minutes remaining to put the Seminoles up 55-41. Colorado called a timeout, prompting Florida State’s fans to break into an “F-S-U” chant. Colorado’s fans booed the officials, who had called a technical on the Buffaloes bench minutes earlier.

Florida State remained in control, stretching its lead to 19 points.

“We had to be locked in, not foul, contest shots, and that took a tremendous effort and a high level of concentration by our team,” Hamilton said. “That’s why I was so proud that they continued to keep executing what we had in that game plan, even when they cut the lead right down to one point.”

BOULDER TRAGEDY

Boyle called a shooting Monday in Boulder, Colorado, a “senseless act of violence” and offered condolences to families affected after the game. The team spoke postgame in the locker room about the supermarket shooting in the city where the school is located. Ten people were killed, including a police officer, and a suspect was in custody, authorities said.

“It puts basketball in its proper place,” Boyle said. “Win or lose tonight, I felt an emptiness in my stomach. Another senseless act of violence that we’ve experienced as a country many, many times.

“Even if we would have won this game and celebrated going to the Sweet 16, it would have put a damper on it,” he added. “My heart goes out to the families that were affected and those that lost their lives.”

FREE THROW RECORD

Colorado fell short of breaking the Division I single-season record for free throw percentage. Harvard in 1984 shot 82.18% from the line. Colorado finished this season at 81.87% and would have set the record if not for two misses in the final minute.

Oral Roberts still could top Harvard. ORU is at 82.19% heading into its Sweet 16 matchup with Arkansas.

QUOTABLE

Hamilton, on handling success: “Now is not the time to take any bows. It’s kind of what we are. If we are satisfied with where we are now, then I guess we can pack our bags and go home.”