The opening day of the women's NCAA tournament was one of "almosts." A No. 15 seed, a No. 13 and a No. 11 lost by a combined total of six points. Had things gone just a little differently, it would have been a historic day in the women's tournament. Instead, those teams go home thinking, "So close," while the victors breathe a sigh of relief.
The game of the day was in Corvallis, Oregon, with second-seeded Oregon State surviving No. 15 Long Beach State 56-55. A No. 15 seed has never won a game in the history of the women's tournament, but the 49ers seemed poised to be the first.
They had not been in the Big Dance since 1992, but made it this year after beating UC Santa Barbara for the Big West title. The 49ers seemed sharper for most of Friday's game, making 10-of-18 from 3-point range while Oregon State made just 2-of-16.
But on a rough day from behind the arc, Oregon State senior guard Sydney Wiese made two free throws with 1 minute, 7 seconds left, and those held up as the winning points.
In many ways, Oregon State has seemed to overachieve this season. The Beavers won the Pac-12 regular-season title despite losing five players from last year's Final Four team, including standouts Ruth Hamblin and Jamie Weisner.
But a 48-43 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament title game and Friday's scare against Long Beach State might have Oregon State coach Scott Rueck a little worried about his team's offense.
Earlier in the day, another top-16 seed also almost saw its NCAA tournament end on its home court, as No. 4 seed Kentucky got all it could handle from No. 13 Belmont before prevailing 73-70.
The Ohio Valley conference champion Bruins came into the NCAA tournament on a 21-game winning streak, and like Long Beach State, never looked as if they were overwhelmed underdogs.
Belmont is a school of about 7,700 in Nashville, Tennessee, not quite one-fourth the size of Kentucky's enrollment. But the Bruins went toe-to-toe with the Wildcats, who finished tied for third in the SEC.
It came down to the senior power of Kentucky's Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, who combined for 52 points and 10 rebounds, and the free throws of Maci Morris, made 7-of-8 in the last 37 seconds.
Belmont's Darby Maggard was well-covered on her last shot, but got off a 3-pointer at the buzzer that could have tied the score. Instead, Kentucky prevailed, and will face another challenge in the second round: Big Ten regular-season co-champion Ohio State.
No. 11 seed South Florida was the other double-digit seed that saw victory snatched away at the last second -- literally. Three matchups against American Athletic Conference foe and overall No. 1 seed UConn prepared the Bulls well for this NCAA tournament.
They took a 13-point lead at halftime over No. 6 Missouri, which tied Kentucky for third in the SEC. But the Tigers rallied in the second half, led by senior Sierra Michaelis, who scored 13 of her 16 points after the break -- including the game winner, which came with sixth-tenths of a second left on Michaelis' putback off freshman teammate Amber Smith's miss.
Missouri had not been in back-to-back NCAA tournaments since 1985 and '86, but for the second year in a row the Tigers have won their NCAA opener. They will meet No. 3 seed Florida State in what could be a marquee second-round matchup.
Another will pit Big Ten tournament champion Maryland against Big 12 tournament champ West Virginia. The third-seeded Terps clobbered Bucknell 103-61, while No. 6 West Virginia defeated Elon 75-62, overcoming a strong challenge from a program making its NCAA tournament debut.
No. 2 Mississippi State against No. 7 DePaul should be another intriguing second-round game. No one was surprised by the Blue Demons' 88 points in a victory over Northern Iowa on Friday. But what's this? Mississippi State scoring 110 points to beat Troy? A defense-first team, the Bulldogs scored their highest point total in an NCAA tournament game.
And they did it despite benching usual starters Victoria Vivians (their leading scorer and a first-team All-SEC player), Dominique Dillingham, Breanna Richardson and Chinwe Okorie.
Morgan William was the only regular starter who got the nod. Coach Vic Schaefer didn't say whether he was sending a message, disciplining the four, or both -- but he was quite happy with the result. However, the Bulldogs will need their stars playing well against DePaul, which shared the Big East regular-season title with Creighton.
The No. 7 seed Bluejays dispatched No. 10 Toledo 76-49, making 10-of-23 3-pointers. Creighton will try to do the same against Oregon State in the second round, hoping to get the upset that Long Beach State couldn't quite finish.
As for the No. 1 seeds in action Friday -- South Carolina and Notre Dame -- neither had any trouble advancing. The Gamecocks got excellent guard play and beat UNC Asheville 90-40, while the Irish had a balanced attack and defeated Robert Morris 79-49.
Things get tougher in the second round. South Carolina will face No. 8 seed Arizona State, which is probably the healthiest it's been all season. The Sun Devils beat Michigan State 73-61 despite Spartan senior Tori Jankoska's 26 points.
Notre Dame's second-round opponent will be No. 9 seed Purdue in an all-Indiana battle. The Boilermakers ended up with the only actual upset, seeding-wise, on Friday, as they beat No. 8 Green Bay 74-62.