Women’s college basketball is back. The 2021-22 season tipped off Tuesday with a top-five clash, a 95-point victory and a school-record 43-point performance.
Faces in new places opened with wins, as LSU coach Kim Mulkey, Oklahoma coach Jennie Baranczyk and Vanderbilt coach Shea Ralph notched season-opening victories. And legend Gary Blair opened his final season with a win as Texas A&M improved to 1-0.
Which teams put in the most impressive performances on Day 1? Which players rose to the occasion? And which squads didn’t quite get off to the start they wanted?
Our panel — ESPN’s Katie Barnes, Charlie Creme and Mechelle Voepel, and ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli — break down what we learned from the opening day of the season and what we’re keeping an eye on the rest of the way.
What did we learn about two of the top teams in the country in South Carolina’s win over NC State?
Barnes: What looked to be — on paper at least — the “battle of bigs,” shaped up to be one that mostly happened in the backcourt. Dominant frontcourt players Aliyah Boston (South Carolina) and Elissa Cunane (NC State) mostly neutralized each other and made most of their respective impacts in less tangible ways than the ones they typically etch into a box score.
The Gamecocks walked into Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, and left with a win when Boston scored only eight points. That is quite the statement. It wasn’t like Boston wasn’t impactful; she had five blocks, six rebounds and a couple of assists. She just wasn’t the dominant offensive force we’ve become accustomed to seeing. And that didn’t really slow down South Carolina very much.
That says a lot about the versatility, resilience and depth of this South Carolina team. The Gamecocks didn’t show everything in their arsenal tonight, but there is no doubt that South Carolina is a serious contender.
Mechelle Voepel: I’m not all that surprised that Boston didn’t have a big point total today, because she has been pretty good in her career about not forcing things. Plus, she’s aware of how many scoring weapons the Gamecocks have, and the various ways she can impact games without scoring. Should she demand the ball more? Or will she do that as the season goes along? We’ll see. The guard duo of Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson were hard to stop all last season, and it looks to be the same this season. They combined for 31 points, nearly half of South Carolina’s total, and did so against what is expected to be a pretty strong defensive team in NC State.
Aliyah Boston puts on a stellar defensive performance as she records five blocks in South Carolina’s season-opening win on the road against NC State.
Charlie Creme: It still concerns and confuses me why more of South Carolina’s offense isn’t run through Boston. That was one of the reasons I was so anxious for this game — to see if that would change. But using their highly successful defensive approach, the Gamecocks wore down NC State. They are going to do that to a lot of teams. The fact that South Carolina can beat another top-five team on the road without a stellar offensive performance speaks volumes to just how good this season should be in Columbia.
Aside from how Boston was utilized, I was also extremely curious about the rotation Dawn Staley would use. With her entire team back, plus the addition of the nation’s best recruiting class and 6-foot-7 Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso, the reigning ACC co-Defensive Player of the Year, the distribution of minutes could be tricky. Instead, Staley stuck to the same formula that worked a year ago, aside from sliding Cardoso into the game for 16 minutes (she only took one shot and had two points). The freshmen — Raven Johnson, Bree Hall, Saniya Rivers and Sania Feagin — totaled just 12 minutes (Rivers and Feagin didn’t play) and didn’t score.
This looked very much like the Gamecocks of 2020-21 as far as playing time is concerned, and South Carolina might not go as deep as many of us thought.
What was the biggest surprise — good or bad — on opening day?
Creme: With a number of new faces and coming off a season in which the offense lacked consistency, Texas exploded in a 131-36 win over New Orleans. Obviously, the Longhorns were the favorite against a Privateers team that went 6-15 a year ago, but a 95-point win would have been difficult for anyone to predict.
Texas returned just two starters, and coach Vic Schaefer relied heavily on three freshmen in the season opener, but Texas played like a cohesive unit. The Longhorns applied constant early pressure and forced 38 New Orleans turnovers. They also registered 30 assists and made 13-of-23 3-pointers.
If Texas is going to have to have a successful season, its freshmen will have to produce, and Tuesday was a positive sign. Aaliyah Moore, the most highly regarded of the trio, scored six points in the first four minutes as the Longhorns jumped to a 17-0 lead. Kyndall Hunter had the most impressive debut with a game-high 27 points that included seven 3-pointers. Latasha Lattimore had 11 points and six rebounds.
Five days from now, Texas takes a prodigious step up in competition when it travels to Stanford on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN). That will be a more realistic litmus test of where this team is. But if Tuesday is any indication, the Longhorns are ahead of the curve when it comes to chemistry and confidence. That will only help facing the defending champs.
Voepel: If the Longhorns piling up 131 points was a surprise, No. 11 Michigan needing overtime against IUPUI before pulling out a 67-62 victory also was eye-opening. Admittedly, the Jaguars are the Horizon League favorites this season. But they really pushed the Wolverines to the brink. Not surprisingly, Naz Hillmon was the ultimate difference-maker for Michigan, finishing with 30 points and 15 rebounds.
Which non-Top 25 team impressed you most on opening day?
Creme: In its first game with a new coach, Oklahoma did something that only four other schools have done in the last five seasons — go into Vermillion and beat the South Dakota Coyotes. A Madi Williams layup with five seconds left gave Oklahoma a 73-71 victory and gave coach Jennie Baranczyk her first Sooners win after moving over from Drake.
The Coyotes, the favorites in the Summit League, hadn’t lost at home in nearly two years. Oklahoma seemingly had them put away with a pair of nine-point leads, but South Dakota kept coming back and tied the score at 71 on Liv Korngable’s 3-pointer with 14 seconds left.
The Sooners have a veteran team with (Williams (19 points), Ana Llanusa (19 points) and Taylor Robertson (17 points), but they went into a basketball-crazed arena with fans who haven’t seen a live game in two seasons, and a coach the players are still getting accustomed to, and won. This is the kind of impressive victory that might fly under the radar in November, but could loom large on the Sooners’ resume come March.
Notre Dame should also get a mention. A year ago, Ohio upset the Irish. On Tuesday the Irish beat the Bobcats 105-69. In this game last November, Notre Dame didn’t have Maya Dodson. On Tuesday, the Stanford transfer poured in 25 points.
Freshman point guard Olivia Miles — who played six games last season as an early entrant — had 11 assists. Tuesday provided a good sign as to what having those two additions for a full season could mean in South Bend.
Voepel: I agree on this being a big-time win for Oklahoma. Baranczyk’s Drake teams were known for their smart cuts and sharp passing in a 3-point shooting offense, and those are key parts of this Sooner team’s attack, too.
Let’s also give some props to LSU as the Tigers opened with an 82-40 victory against Nicholls State in Mulkey’s debut in Baton Rouge, with a triple-double from guard Khayla Pointer (she is another underrated player to keep an eye on this season).
And Shea Ralph’s head-coaching career began at Vanderbilt with a 75-59 victory over Gardner-Webb. The longtime UConn assistant has a lot of building to do in Nashville, but today was a good start.
No. 13 Kentucky’s Kyra Elzy says the Wildcats were able to pull away and get the 81-53 win over Presbyterian when they turned it up on defense.
Name an underrated player this preseason who performed well Tuesday and will rank as one of the best players in the country by March.
Debbie Antonelli: Aisha Sheppard was on my ballot for ESPN’s top 25 player rankings but didn’t make the final list. The 5-9 guard, a graduate student in her fifth season at Virginia Tech, is a top-five shooter and a hard-working bucket-getter who constantly delivers. In Tuesday’s season opener, Sheppard scored 25 points in 32 minutes, hitting 7-for-10 from 3-point range in a 76-57 victory over Davidson. Sheppard, who is especially effective off screens and as an off-ball cutter, powered the Hokies to 50% shooting from downtown (15 of 30). She was 8-for-17 overall from the field.
No. 7 Baylor had 16 turnovers to 14 assists in Tuesday’s 77-70 win over Texas State. But Jordan Lewis had half of the team’s assists (and one turnover) in her debut with the Bears. The former All-SEC first-team guard, who decided to play her extra year of eligibility in Waco after four years at Alabama, brings leadership and a competitive drive to Baylor and is another player to keep an eye on this season. Lewis — another player I voted for in the top 25 players — also scored 14 points — giving Baylor three players in double figures behind NaLyssa Smith’s 23 points and Queen Egbo’s 16 — and shot 4-for-9 from the field.
Voepel: Kansas State center Ayoka Lee was on my Top 25 player ballot, and she opened with a school-record 43 points on 17 of 25 shooting from the field in the Wildcats’ 103-40 victory over Central Arkansas. She was 9-of-12 from the line and had nine rebounds, four blocks and three steals. The 6-6 junior averaged 19.1 PPG and 8.1 RPG last season, and is definitely a player to watch in regard to the rest of her college career and her WNBA potential.
What team that hasn’t played yet are you most looking forward to seeing?
Voepel: No. 15 Tennessee starts with Southern Illinois on Wednesday, and this could be a really big season for Rae Burrell. It also will be interesting to see how Alexus Dye fits in as a graduate transfer after being Sun Belt Player of the Year last season with Troy.
And isn’t everyone excited to see the 2021 champions back in action? The Stanford Cardinal might be thinking, “Why are we ranked only No. 3?” They open with Morgan State on Thursday, but the first potential test is the aforementioned game Sunday vs. Texas.
Creme: I am interested to see what Louisville looks like without Dana Evans. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cardinals debut is Friday night against Arizona in Sioux Falls. That’s another top-25 matchup early in the season.
The Wildcats are 1-0 after Tuesday’s 87-44 win over CSU Northridge, but Louisville-Arizona is also a matchup of teams who are remaking themselves after the entire offense was built around their point guards last season. For the Cardinals, much of the curiosity will be about Hailey Van Lith, who could be a star in her sophomore season stepping out of Evans’ shadow. I also want to see how Jeff Walz incorporates the versatility of Syracuse transfer Emily Engstler.