- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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That month has arrived again.
In the days and weeks to come, filling March and spilling over into April and a basketball party in New Orleans, a lot of of seniors are going to tell us and tell themselves that they want to play with the urgency of the moment. At least until the national championship game, what they mean is they will try to play as though it's their last game to make sure that it isn't.
They would be wise to follow the lead of a group of seniors who knew their last run really was at hand.
Amid more than 100 other games played Saturday, action that included a triple-double from Brittney Griner, 32 points from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and All-American numbers from Skylar Diggins and Chiney Ogwumike, a Summit League game between Nebraska-Omaha and Missouri-Kansas City seems about as high profile as an overnight slot on C-SPAN. It isn't a game that should mean much of anything to most people.
Except that this is the month when every game means something to someone.
In just its second season of Division I basketball and its first season in the Summit League, Omaha is ineligible for its conference tournament. That meant that even though the Mavericks entered the regular-season finale with a chance to finish as high as fifth in the league and with more total wins (16) than any Summit teams save South Dakota State and IUPUI, Saturday was it. Win and the season was over. Lose and the season was over.
The 68-41 victory suggested there was a world of difference between the two potential outcomes to those involved.
Senior point guard Jamie Nash finished with 17 points, 12 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals in 38 minutes. The assists matched a career high for a player who would rank in the top 10 nationally in assists per game if eligible during the program's reclassification period (she would rank in the top 20 in steals per game). Fellow senior Paige Frauendorfer added 22 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals in 39 minutes. Carolyn Blair-Mobley and Carly Cator added 15 points between them, meaning Omaha's four seniors outscored UMKC on their own.
Just about the only seconds Nash and Frauendorfer didn't spend on the court came in the final moments when they were replaced so that they might receive the congratulations of teammates, coaches and the friends and family who presumably made up much of the small announced crowd. And that was that. The team's leading scorer the past two seasons as the Mavericks went from playing schools like Pittsburg State to playing the likes of Kentucky, Frauendorfer is also an academic All-American who said she will most likely now head not to the WNBA or an overseas league but to pharmacy school. Pity the poor pharmacist who gets to try to guard her in a pickup game.
But she, Nash and their senior teammates made the most of the moment they had.
Play like every game could be your last. We hear that phrase time and again. For all but the handful who make it to April, it will be at some point in March. Omaha has exited. Now let's see what the rest of the country does.
She also starred
Alexis Jones, Duke: She didn't average 40 points per game like our espnW player of the week, but few performances were more important than the one Jones turned in with 22 points and four assists in a 65-58 victory against North Carolina.
Coming off a loss at Miami, their first loss in the brutal schedule stretch confronted in the aftermath of Chelsea Gray's injury, the Blue Devils looked like a team missing a star point guard during a stretch late in the first half that gave the Tar Heels a halftime lead (unlike the first meeting in Chapel Hill, which the Blue Devils led 50-19 at the break). Sunday's game seemed to turn when Duke turned up its defensive pressure, a luxury it can't afford over a full 40 minutes with a shortened rotation, but it was Jones, averaging 16.7 points. 6.3 assists and 3.3 turnovers in the past three games, who also took command.
Griner (28 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks on the road against West Virginia), Diggins (24 points, 8 assists and 6 steals against Syracuse and a similar line against Providence) and Elena Delle Donne (28 points, 10 rebounds and 3 key blocks in a tough game against Drexel) all did what we love to see them do, but how about giving a spot on the podium to Villanova's Laura Sweeney? Perhaps it wasn't strictly a must-win game against Syracuse on Sunday, but a 77-75 triple-overtime road win goes a long way toward putting the bow on Villanova's tournament résumé. And Sweeney went a long way to get it, playing 52 minutes and totaling 29 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks and 2 steals. The Wildcats lost at home against St. John's earlier in the week, but the senior did her part there, too, with 15 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals.
It's never wise to pit teammates against each other, so the final spot is shared by Winthrop's Dequesha McClanahan and Diana Choibekova, who traded big numbers in victories that solidified their team's hold on the No. 2 seed in the Big South tournament. McClanahan had 23 points, 6 assists and 5 steals in a win against Gardner-Webb, then followed that with 31 points, 7 assists and 8 steals in a win against UNC Asheville in which the Eagles scored 100 points. Choibekova had a comparatively quiet 17 points in the first game but followed it with 33 points against UNC Asheville, including 10-of-19 shooting from the 3-point line.
Team of the week
The Big Ten tournament already promised to be among the most competitive and potentially entertaining in the country, and it got even more intriguing with a very familiar team assuming the unfamiliar role of spoiler in the final week of the regular season. Ohio State isn't making the NCAA tournament without the Big Ten's automatic bid, the product of a 1-7 start in conference play, but that is an easier feat to envision after wins against Michigan State, Michigan and Illinois in the span of seven days. Tayler Hill reached 20 points against both the Illini and Wolverines, and a rotation that barely needs that title held up to major minutes.
Are the Buckeyes still a long shot in Chicago? Sure. But consider one bit of statistical fun. Rank the Big Ten teams in field goal offense and field goal defense and assign points for those rankings (so the team with the best field goal percentage gets 12 points and the team with the worst field goal percentage gets one point, then repeat the process for field goal defense). Ohio State comes away with 18 points for the second-best field goal percentage and sixth-best field goal defense. Where does that place them? Tied with Penn State at the top of the league. Food for thought.
Honorable mention to Army, with an assist from Bucknell. The cadets from West Point earned mention here a couple of weeks ago after completing a sweep of their season series against Navy, but the work wasn't done. A subsequent loss in Patriot League play put Army back behind Navy in the race for the No. 1 seed and the right to potentially host the conference championship game.
To reclaim the top seed, Army needed to beat Holy Cross and Lehigh and wait for someone else to beat Navy. The first task on the list proved easy enough, but Army trailed Lehigh by 10 points with 11 minutes to play Saturday. It finished the game on a 27-7 run. And when Bucknell upset Navy later that day, Army had the top seed. A rematch between the two service academies in the title game would be one of the highlights of the next two weeks.
Upset of the week
Seton Hall beats St. John's: Take your pick from Thursday, when six ranked teams lost to opponents who were either unranked or lower ranked, including Missouri beating South Carolina, Mississippi State beating Georgia and Minnesota beating Penn State. But the upset with the greatest postseason ramifications might not have involved a ranked team.
At 10-4 in the Big East when the weekend began, St. John's seemed to have overcome a slow start to the season to put itself in position to return to the NCAA tournament a season after being President Obama's pick to win it all. All the Red Storm had to do was beat DePaul at home -- oh, and beat Seton Hall on the road. Oops. One big night from Seton Hall's Brittany Morris and 17 offensive rebounds from her teammates might undo much of what St. John's accomplished in February wins against Georgetown, South Florida, Rutgers, Villanova and others.