The bad news: the only way we’ll see a Texas–Texas A&M, Baylor–Texas A&M, or Texas–Baylor game in the 2021 women’s NCAA basketball tournament is in the Final Four.
The good news: we could see a Texas–Texas A&M, Baylor–Texas A&M, or Texas–Baylor game in the Final Four!
Is this an actual prediction? Of course not. But what would March Madness be without wishful thinking? Especially when those three teams provide a veritable Mount Rushmore of women’s hoops coaching in A&M’s Gary Blair and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey, both national champions (once for Blair, three times for Mulkey) and Hall of Famers, as well as first-year Longhorns coach Vic Schaefer, a former Blair assistant who’s best known for coaching Mississippi State in one of the greatest tournament games ever.
Whereas seven Texas men’s teams made it to March Madness, only four got in the women’s tourney, with Stephen F. Austin joining the power schools as Southland Conference champion. On Sunday, underdog SFA lost a 54–52 thriller to Georgia Tech, while Baylor, a number two seed, put up 101 points on Jackson State in a 49-point blowout. Things did not go quite so well for Texas A&M on Monday. The Aggies came dangerously close to becoming the first two-seed in the history of the women’s NCAA tourney to lose to a fifteen seed, but they managed to eke out an 84–80 win over Troy. Meanwhile, the number-six-seed Longhorns cruised against Bradley, 81–62.
UT is still the long shot here: three ESPN pundits have both Texas A&M and Baylor in the Final Four, with a fourth expert picking Baylor on its own. If the Bears and Aggies are fortunate enough to meet in the semis, the winner would also, in all likelihood, have to get by top overall seed Stanford to win another title.
It’s still a Texas tournament no matter how you slice it, with all of the remaining games in San Antonio, after a first round that included games in Austin and San Marcos. Unfortunately, the NCAA hasn’t been the greatest host to its “student athletes,” as there have been unbelievable disparities between the facilities, amenities, and COVID-19 safety protocols provided at the men’s and women’s tournaments.
First, there was the pathetic “weight room”—a single rack of dumbbells—that was originally provided for the women’s players, while the men in Indiana had a large space full of workout equipment.
Then, we learned that the men’s tournament “swag bag”—NCAA and sponsor–provided gifts for the athletes, who are often otherwise unable to accept gifts—was much nicer than the one in San Antonio. The standout “you-can’t-make-this-up” detail: the women got a 150-piece puzzle, compared to the men’s 500-piece.
The NCAA being the NCAA, its rules not only counted children, but also breastfeeding infants against the limit on travel-party size, a potential burden for any team with mothers on the staff or roster. And perhaps worst of all, the daily antigen-based COVID-testing program used at the women’s tournament is not considered as reliable as the one the men are using, even though PCR tests are readily available in San Antonio.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, the men’s tournament is also enthusiastically branded with the copyrighted phrase “March Madness,” while the women’s tournament is simply “NCAA Women’s Basketball”—including on the Alamodome’s center-court logo.
“A number of balls were dropped,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a letter to his staff about the gender inequalities—although that may not be the turn of phrase he thinks it is.
Thankfully, the action on the court has been outstanding. Here’s how the Texas teams playing in “NCAA Women’s Basketball” shake out, starting with a fond farewell to . . .
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
No. 12 seed, Hemisfair region
First-round result: Lost to No. 5 seed Georgia Tech, 54–52
We almost had a Southland Conference upset in both tournaments. The 24–2 Ladyjacks—yup, that’s how they do it—came into the tournament on a 19-game winning streak and led Georgia Tech 34–17 at halftime. But their offense fizzled and they couldn’t hold the lead—nor find an answer for the Yellow Jackets’ star forward, six-foot-four Lorela Cubaj, who missed a portion of the second quarter after taking a hard fall.
Led by freshman Avery Brittingham (16 points, 13 rebounds) and Swedish guard Stephanie Visscher (14 points, 10 rebounds), SFA still led by two points with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, but wound up losing in overtime. It was a heartbreaker, not a moral victory or “One Shining Moment” (another thing that’s just for men, if only because it’s CBS’s trademark, and the women are on ESPN/ABC).
Still, SFA coach Mark Kellogg, who fell just short of a Division II championship at West Texas A&M, has the school from Nacogdoches back in business. Between 1989 and 1996 the Ladyjacks—then coached by A&M’s Blair and his successor, current Texas A&M-Corpus Christi coach Royce Chadwick—went to the Sweet 16 five times. But until this year, they hadn’t made the tournament since 2006. Over the past four seasons under Kellogg, SFA has been the second-winningest Divison 1 women’s team in the state, just behind Baylor. We’ll be seeing them again.
No. 6 seed, Hemisfair region
Second-round opponent: No. 3 seed UCLA, Wednesday
How far can they go: Sweet 16
UT women’s basketball is pretty much like UT football. Both programs got to the mountaintop with legendary coaches: Jody Conradt and Darrell Royal, respectively. But while Mack Brown’s Longhorns finally lived up to Royal’s national championship–winning standard, no coach since Conradt has been able to lead Texas women’s hoops to those heights. My streaming television provider’s listing for Monday’s UT–Bradley contest said it all, good parts and bad: “Texas, the 1986 champion, has reached 32 of the 39 previous tourneys.”
Texas native Vic Schaefer—an Aggie, no less!—is meant to be the Brown to Conradt’s Royal. In his first season, he was no better at beating Baylor than his predecessor, Karen Aston, who was 1–18 against the Bears in eight seasons. Schaefer’s Longhorns are already 0–3 in that regard, but the coach learned how to win in March during his previous gigs at A&M and Mississippi State, with three trips to the national championship game.
Schaefer probably won’t get his first title as head coach this year. But 19–9 Texas has the presumed WNBA number one draft pick in Charli Collier, and a veteran, tournament-tested coaching staff that came mostly intact from Starkville, Mississippi. Particularly in this year of chaos, it wouldn’t be too shocking to see the Horns last longer than one of the higher-seeded Texas teams.
Don’t bet on it, though. There’s just too much kryptonite on UT’s side of the bracket. Should the Longhorns upset UCLA, other potential roadblocks to the Final Four include number-two-seed Maryland, number-four-seed West Virginia (2–0 against the Longhorns this year), and number-one-seed South Carolina, which has beaten Schaefer in three SEC tournament championship games, as well as the 2017 national title game.
No. 2 seed, River Walk region
Second-round game: No. 7 seed Virginia Tech, Tuesday
How far can they go: Final Four
It feels strange for Baylor to not be the favorite—or even to be less favored than Scott Drew’s men’s team. When last year’s season was canceled, Baylor was 28–2, ranked third in the nation, and well poised to defend its 2019 title. This year—ho-hum—they’re still the Big 12 champs, and 25–2, but are “only” ranked fifth in the country and a number two seed in the tournament.
That makes them an underdog, if only by a little. The 2019 star Lauren Cox is gone, but the Bears still have Big 12 Player of the Year NaLyssa Smith, 2020 national defensive player of the year DiDi Richards, and not one, but two, Big 12 Sixth Player Award winners (Queen Egbo last year and DiJonai Carrington this season).
Putting Baylor in the Final Four is both a wish and a prediction, because even if you don’t like Baylor, it would be a lot of fun. The Bears’ most likely path through the bracket is stacked with brand-name matchups, with Tennessee in the Sweet 16 and number one seed UConn in the Elite Eight. If Baylor can survive its regional, the Bears could be looking at a semifinal clash against Texas A&M. That would come exactly ten years after their incredible Elite Eight showdown in Dallas, and nine years after the Aggies’ final Big 12 season. Unlike with Texas–Texas A&M in football, nobody in the Lege has tried to pass a law demanding these teams play again. But maybe they won’t have to.
No. 2 seed, Mercado region
Second-round opponent: No. 7 seed Iowa State, Wednesday
How far can they go: Final Four
The Aggies—24–2 and ranked fourth in the AP poll—almost lost to Troy at . . . wait for it . . . Austin’s Frank Erwin Center, with Bevo horns and burnt orange letters all over the court. Even so, they enjoyed favorite/home-team privilege, with several late whistles breaking their way. Between that game and a loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament semifinal that cost A&M its presumed number one seed, Gary Blair’s team is either unraveling at the seams or won’t be caught off guard again.
I’m betting on the latter, because even if you’re not an Aggie—even if you don’t like the Aggies—who doesn’t want to root for Blair? Since joining the SEC, A&M has made the Elite Eight once, slipped slightly for three seasons, and then reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2018 and 2019. But 2020–21 was Blair’s first regular-season SEC title, with a 13–1 conference record, including wins over Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Georgia—all ranked teams.
With a deep, balanced roster that includes A&M’s all-time rebounding leader N’dea Jones, bruising center Ciera Johnson, and SEC Sixth Woman of the Year Destiny Pitts, the Aggies should be good enough to run past number-three-seed Arizona, setting up an Elite Eight meeting with the North Carolina State team that edged them out for the number one seed. Then it would be time for Gig ’Em vs. Sic ’Em.