No. 2 South Carolina vs. No. 11 University at Buffalo
Tipoff: 11:30 a.m., Saturday, Times Union Center, Albany, ESPN
The University at Buffalo makes its Sweet 16 debut against the defending national champs in the Albany regional. The Bulls are the second Big 4 women's basketball team to advance to the Sweet 16, joining St. Bonaventure, which lost to Notre Dame in Raleigh, N.C., in 2012. UB, which made the tournament as an at-large team, has already set the program record for wins in a season with 29. South Carolina, which has the national player of the year in A'ja Wilson, made the field after winning its fourth straight SEC tournament title.
The Bulls went to Tallahassee for their first- and second-round games and played with confidence, a little swagger, and a lot of joy. They knocked off South Florida, ranked 19th in the country, and then ousted Florida State, ranked 11th in the country, on their home floor. Four starters are averaging double figures, led by junior Cierra Dillard, who can drop 3-pointers all day long if you let her. Point guard Stephanie Reid directs the team on both ends of the floor. The Bulls love to run and score in transition and they take pride in team defense that has been locked in, allowing Buffalo to compete on the glass against bigger teams. They are solid at the free throw line and know how to get there. Buffalo also prides itself on depth, although against South Carolina the Bulls need to stay out of foul trouble. While all 14 players are capable, at this stage it would hurt to have one of their starters, especially Dillard, Reid or Cassie Oursler, sitting because of fouls.
The defending national champs didn't walk into the Sweet 16. The Gamecocks had to earn their fifth straight trip to the regional, beating North Carolina A&T, 63-52, then Virginia, 66-56. Both teams cut the lead to single digits in the fourth quarter. It was A'ja Wilson providing the leadership to advance South Carolina. Already named the national player of the year by espnW and USA Today, the 6-foot-5 Wilson combined for 44 points and 27 rebounds in the first two NCAA Tournament games. Freshman guard Bianca Jackson added a scoring boost, totaling 29 points in the opening wins. In that first game, South Carolina committed 19 turnovers. They cleaned it up to just 10 against Virginia, but that's something the Gamecocks will need to watch against a Buffalo team that lives for transition. The defense has been pretty impressive for South Carolina as well, allowing opponents just 60.2 points per game and a .360 shooting percentage. That's helped by Wilson, again, who has 102 blocks this season. Even when she doesn't get a hand on the ball, she has the ability to change shots.
Outlook: UB was impressive in its first two wins in the NCAA Tournament, shutting down some key players. But the Sweet 16 is a different animal. Teams are not just better, they have more time to prepare to counter your specific strengths. Still, the way the Bulls are playing, particularly their confidence, has them in an excellent position. If they play the way their capable, they should give South Carolina plenty of fits.
Prediction: South Carolina 67, Buffalo 61