Women's NCAA basketball tourney ready for a Sweet 16 MAC attack
While Loyola has the Cinderella story covered in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, it's the Mid-American Conference that is wearing the glass slipper in the women's tourney.
Like Loyola, it has been easy and fun to root for them.
Usually, the MAC gets just one berth into the women's tournament via the winner of the MAC tournament.
But this year, the MAC earned two berths with Central Michigan and at-large qualifier Buffalo. And the MAC is still going strong with both Buffalo and Central Michigan play in Saturday's Sweet 16.
No. 11 Buffalo beat No. 3 Florida State last week in the second round by 21 points, and No. 11 Central Michigan stunned No. 3 Ohio State, a Top 10 team, by 17 points.
These wins weren't flukes.
"We're putting on for the MAC and showing the world we actually can compete with bigger conferences," Central Michigan guard Micaela Kelly said after the Ohio State win.
Both Buffalo and Central Michigan are led by former Big Ten coaches whom I got to know well during their stints in that league. Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack was the head coach at Indiana for six years starting in 2006. When her son David and my son Matt were grade schoolers, they shot baskets together on the Assembly Hall floor in Bloomington when I covered games there. Both boys are now 17.
I've known CMU coach Sue Guevara since she was an assistant at Michigan State and I was a player at Northwestern. Guevara also was the head coach at Michigan for seven years starting in 1996.
Buffalo won the MAC East this year while Central Michigan, led by conference player of the year Tinara Moore, won the West and the MAC tournament championship as well.
Central Michigan, which upset No. 6 LSU in the first round, hit 14 3-pointers and dominated the boards to beat Ohio State in round two.
"This team will not fold," Guevara said after that win. "This team is very tough, this team is very focused. We know what we had to do and we went out and did it."
Guevara was on the phone with Legette-Jack after her team earned its Sweet 16 ticket.
Buffalo, the first MAC team to earn an at-large berth in 22 years, also became the first MAC team since Bowling Green in 2007 to earn a spot in the Sweet 16. The Bulls used tough defense, strong post play and a 27-for-30 performance at the line to defeat Florida State in the second round. Moments later, Central Michigan joined Buffalo in the Sweet 16 with its win over Ohio State.
"Our goal was to let people know that the MAC was alive and well," Legette-Jack said of her celebratory phone conversation with Guevara.
The MAC Cinderellas have two tough tests against a pair of No. 2 seeds. Buffalo takes South Carolina, the defending NCAA champ, at 10:30 a.m in the Albany regional. Central Michigan faces Oregon at 5 p.m in the Spokane regional.
Both games will be shown live on ESPN/ESPN2.
Buffalo head coach Felisha Legette-Jack, who once coached at Indiana, has led her team to a Sweet 16 game against South Carolina on Saturday.
- Associated Press/file
More MAC good news
One of my favorite rags-to-riches stories of the MAC women's basketball season came out of Northern Illinois.
The Huskies lost several players, including two starters, to major injuries over the season and were nearly without the services of their best player for the entire season.
Junior guard Courtney Woods, who led the MAC in scoring (22.1 ppg), was in danger of having to redshirt this season due to serious illness. About six weeks before preseason practices, Woods came down with a severe case of mononucleosis that led to multiple stays at the hospital. Her mom flew from her home in Australia to provide care.
"We were really worried Courtney wouldn't be recovered in time (for the season)," NIU coach Lisa Carlsen said. "We were thinking that red-shirting her might need to be a real possibility.
"Obviously we are really glad that didn't have to happen."
Woods, a first-team all-conference pick, was one of the best players and best 3-point shooters in the MAC all season. Considering how sick she was just months ago, her performance was even more impressive.