Thursday, April 18, 2024
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NC State reaches both Final Fours; Iowa to face LSU in title game rematch

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🏀 Good morning to everyone but especially …

THE MEN’S FINAL FOUR

One month ago, the major story surrounding NC State basketball was Kevin Keatts‘ job status. The Wolfpack were an afterthought limping to the end of another disappointing season.

Then came a miraculous ACC Tournament run — five wins in five days — and now we’re here. The Wolfpack’s magical March will extend into an astonishing April after the team clinched its first Final Four berth since 1983 with a 76-64 Elite Eight win over fourth-seeded Duke.

As an 11 seed, the Wolfpack are tied for worst seed ever to make a Final Four.

I don’t have enough superlatives to describe NC State’s run. Marvelous. Unimaginable. The very best that college basketball has to offer. It’s characters like DJ Burns Jr. (29 points), whose build belies incredible footwork, shooting touch and overall feel, that make the NCAA Tournament so great. Kyle Boone wrote about the lovable big man.

  • Boone: “It was Burns who set the tone for NC State on Sunday in its stunning upset of ACC rival and crosstown foe Duke in their first-ever NCAA Tournament matchup and it was Burns who was ultimately the most responsible for sending Duke packing. He scored a mid-range bucket to open the game. He gave Duke big man Kyle Filipowski a forearm shiver moments later for another basket. Then in the second half, he found another gear and threw the Pack on his back.”

Earlier Sunday, we got two of the best players in the sport throwing haymakers and two of the best coaches in the sport looking for a breakthrough. The only downside was that there could only be one winner.

Top-seeded Purdue is headed to its first Final Four since 1980 after outlasting second-seeded Tennessee, 72-66, behind a 40-point, 16-rebound domination from Zach Edey. He’s the first player to go for 40 and 15 on 60% shooting in an NCAA Tournament game since Elvin Hayes in 1968.

The Boilermakers needed every single point as Volunteers star Dalton Knecht scored 37 points, making six 3-pointers. Boone also wrote on this clash of titans.

  • Boone: “Perhaps if the Volunteers could have produced an answer for Edey on Sunday, Knecht’s monster game against the Boilermakers would have gotten him back in the running. But it’s Edey’s era, and what he did to Tennessee cemented his place not only as the greatest player of the past two years but as one of the best to ever play college basketball.”

So we’ve checked off Cinderella and redemption storylines. On the other side, we have an unstoppable force vs. unlikely heroes.

Top-seeded UConn is barreling toward another title. The reigning champs were tied with third-seeded Illinois, 23-23, late in the first half. Then they went on a 30-0 run — yes, thirty to zero — en route to another dominant win, 77-52. Matt Norlander could hardly believe what he saw in Boston.

As for the unlikely heroes, Jarin Stevenson was Alabama‘s latest in the fourth seed’s 89-82 win over sixth-seeded ClemsonCameron Salerno’s story on the true freshman is excellent.

Here’s our early Final Four preview, with plenty to come.

🏀 And also an especially good morning to …

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THE SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS AND NC STATE WOLFPACK

The quest for perfection is still on. Top-seeded South Carolina held off No. 3 seed Oregon State70-58, in the Elite Eight to improve to 36-0 and its fourth straight Final Four.

The Gamecocks led nearly the entire game, but the Beavers kept things close and were down just four late. There’s a reason Dawn Staley admitted she’s “uncomfortably comfortable” ahead of the game: Her team is getting everybody’s best shot, and the Beavers were no different. But there’s still a zero in that loss column, and Isabel Gonzalez has a by-the-numbers look at the Gamecocks’ season.

Up next for South Carolina is another No. 3 seed, NC State after the Wolfpack upset No. 1 Texas76-66. Unranked to begin the season, NC State has experienced a rapid rise just like their newfound star, Aziaha James. The junior guard scored 27 points (after scoring 29 in the Sweet 16 win over Stanford) and is averaging 24.3 points in the tournament. She brought the heat to her postgame press conference.

👍 Honorable mentions

😬 And not such a good morning for …

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THE WOMEN’S NCAA TOURNAMENT COURT IN PORTLAND

This is a new one, and an inexcusable one at that. The court for the women’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in Portland had uneven 3-point lines — just compare the space at the top of key on both ends of the floor — a fact that wasn’t discovered/investigated until shortly before Sunday’s Texas-NC State game. The top of the 3-point line on the left side of the court was far closer to the basket than it was on the right side.

Both Texas coach Vic Schaefer and NC State coach Wes Moore agreed to play regardless, in order to prevent major delays. Still, it created a very awkward pre-game scene, with measurements to prove there was indeed a major inequality in distance and Schaefer and Moore both inspecting the court themselves and meeting with officials.

The NCAA issued a statement apologizing, saying the court maker apologized and vowing the court will be fixed before tonight’s USC-UConn game.

I don’t know what’s worse — the error itself or the fact that it took so long to get noticed. Either way, neither coach was particularly happy, nor should they have been.

“Well, I hate to say this, but I have a lot of colleagues that would say, ‘Only in women’s basketball,'” Schaefer said. “I mean, it’s a shame, really, that it even happened. But it is what it is.”

👎 Not so honorable mentions

🏀 Iowa-LSU, USC-UConn to determine rest of Women’s Final Four

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The other half of the Final Four will be determined today, and it’ll feature one of the most hyped games in recent memory, No. 1 seed Iowa vs. No. 3 seed LSU in a rematch of last year’s championship game, won by the Tigers. After talking plenty of trash to Caitlin Clark during the victory, Angel Reese cleared the air Sunday, saying, “Me and Caitlin Clark don’t hate each other. I want everybody to understand that. It’s just a super competitive game. Once I get between those lines, there’s no friends.”

It’s a great approach, and Clark pretty much agreed with that assessment. So did Hailey Van Lith, Erica Ayala writes from Albany.

Erica also has the preview of a game everyone’s been waiting for since the bracket reveal.

  • Ayala: “Iowa has the best offensive team in the country, and Clark is a key part of the Hawkeyes scoring. Still, she’s not the only weapon. As the season has gone on, Iowa has done a better job of getting more players involved. On Saturday, all five of Iowa’s starters scored in the double digits. … At their best, the Tigers are a strong rebounding team with the ability to use their speed to break down defenses in transition and off the dribble. They are also a proud team.”

If you’re going to watch Iowa-LSU (which you should), you’ll want to stick around for the nightcap, too: No. 1 seed USC vs. No. 3 seed UConn in another showdown between two of the country’s best. Geno Auriemma called Paige Bueckers “the best player in America,” but Trojans freshman phenom JuJu Watkins will certainly have something to say about that.

⚾ Yankees’ sweep of Astros highlights MLB opening weekend

The last time the Yankees started 4-0, Juan Soto was 4 years old, the Astros were in the NL, the Washington Nationals were the Montreal Expos, and Steve Bartman was just some guy.

Well, now Juan Soto is all grown up, and the Astros are surely not thrilled he’s in their league: The Yankees’ newest star propelled the Bronx Bombers to their first 4-0 start since 2003 with a sweep of Houston. Here are Soto’s highlights:

  • Batting 9 for 17 (.529) with one home run, four RBI, three walks, two strikeouts
  • Game-saving outfield assist on Opening Day
  • Go-ahead RBI in the ninth inning Sunday

The Yankees and Braves getting strong starts against arch-rivals are among R.J. Anderson’s 10 takeaways from opening weekend

We also have Matt Snyder’s Power Rankings:

  1. Braves
  2. Dodgers
  3. Yankees
  4. Orioles
  5. Rangers

📺 What we’re watching Monday

Rangers at Rays, 6:50 p.m. on FS1
🏀 (3) LSU vs. (1) Iowa (W), 7 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Suns at Pelicans, 8 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 (3) UConn vs. (1) USC (W), 9 p.m. on ESPN

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