Women’s college basketball is back, and Day 1 of the 2023-24 season was full of exciting freshmen, 18 ranked teams on the court, three meetings between Top 25 opponents and one massive upset.
Defending national champion LSU — which returns Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese — turned heads in the offseason by bringing in top transfers Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow, while also signing the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. But the Tigers didn’t look the part of the best team in the country Monday. No. 20 Colorado dominated LSU for three quarters, coming away with a 92-78 upset victory in the Hall of Fame series in Las Vegas.
LSU’s loss marked the first time that the defending champion or No. 1 team in the country dropped its season opener since UConn to start the 1995-96 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Earlier Monday, freshmen dominated the storylines with memorable debuts. Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo scored 31 points in a loss to South Carolina, a top-10 game in which Magic Johnson said Gamecocks’ MiLaysia Fulwiley made “the best move in all of basketball.”
Then USC’s JuJu Watkins showed why she was considered a program-changer even before suiting up for the Trojans, scoring 32 points as Lindsay Gottlieb’s No. 21-ranked squad upset No. 7 Ohio State 83-74.
ESPN’s Michael Voepel, Alexa Philippou and Charlie Creme analyze everything we learned on opening day, from what LSU’s loss means for its repeat aspirations to the Pac-12’s big day.
LSU has work to do
LSU coach Kim Mulkey didn’t disappoint with her Las Vegas-themed fit Monday, but the Tigers have to be disappointed losing in their opener as the defending champion and No. 1-ranked team.
But the loss wasn’t necessarily a shock to Mulkey, who said in the preseason the Tigers needed to figure out the best way to replace point guard Alexis Morris, their fifth-year senior floor leader who averaged 33 minutes last season.
LSU looked uncertain in its offense Monday, especially against the Buffaloes’ man-to-man defense, and didn’t have the same on-court connection we saw last season. Defensively, the Tigers had no answer for Jaylyn Sherrod, Mulkey said.
It wasn’t all bad for the Tigers, who got a strong debut from freshman Mikaylah Williams (17 points) in the starting lineup and sophomore Sa’Myah Smith (6-of-8 for 16 points) off the bench. But the chemistry and cohesion that LSU had as national champions will need to develop.
“We will get back to work and dig a little deeper,” Mulkey said after the game. “It won’t be a fun film session. Giving up 90-something points, that’s not good enough. — Voepel
Good luck keeping up with Colorado’s guards
Colorado senior Frida Formann looked to expand her game this summer by playing point guard for Denmark’s national team. But Monday in Las Vegas she went back to what she does best: shoot. The guard blitzed LSU from deep all night, making 7-for-11 from 3-point range and scoring 27 points in the Buffs’ surprisingly dominant win over the No. 1 Tigers.
Forman left the point guard duties to the ultra-quick Sherrod. The game turned Colorado’s way in the second quarter once Sherrod realized none of the Tigers’ guards could stay in front of her. She penetrated her way to 12 points and two assists in the quarter, as the Buffs outscored the Tigers 24-16 in the period. They never trailed again. Sherrod finished with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists and Colorado got its biggest win since beating No. 1 Stanford in 2021. Sherrod and Forman were part of that upset, too and, along with USC’s win over Ohio State, helped give the Pac-12 two upset victories on opening day. — Creme
MiLaysia Fulwiley dazzles with crafty around-the-back layup
MiLaysia Fulwiley runs the fast break herself and finishes an incredible layup for South Carolina.
Game is in good hands as freshmen steal show in Paris
Hidalgo was fearless from the jump with 13 first-quarter points before finishing with 31, the most points for a Notre Dame player in the first game of her career. Hidalgo, Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron will make an excellent three-guard trio whenever Miles returns from knee injury.
Fulwiley had some ridiculous, jaw-dropping plays in South Carolina’s 100-71 victory over Notre Dame in Paris — including a fancy behind-the-back layup finish that seemed to break the Internet and got the attention of Magic Johnson and Kevin Durant. But her all-around game and instincts — she had six assists and six steals along with 17 points — were impressive. Now we know why South Carolina coach Dawn Staley called her “generational” before Fulwiley even suited up for the Gamecocks. Oh, and at 5-foot-10, she can dunk too. — Philippou
JuJu as good as advertised
USC’s JuJu Watkins lived up to her billing, leading the Trojans to an 83-74 upset over No. 7 Ohio State, an Elite Eight team last season. Watkins’ 32 points surpassed Lisa Leslie’s 30 in her USC debut, and were the most by an espnW HoopGurlz top-five recruit in her first game since the rankings began in 2007, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Watkins’ scoring and ability to get to the free throw line stood out, but also her basketball IQ and poise — in her first collegiate game against a top-10 opponent, no less.
After getting into some early foul trouble, Watkins returned to score seven points and dish out two assists in the fourth and help ward off an Ohio State comeback. USC was plus-23 with her on the court and minus-14 with her off of it. If this is the “worst” we see Watkins — given these were her first college minutes — can you imagine how high her ceiling is? — Philippou
Caitlin Clark, Hawkeyes offense aren’t slowing down
Iowa, last season’s national runner-up, has been an offensive juggernaut, especially during point guard Caitlin Clark’s career. Monday’s 102-46 opening victory over Fairleigh Dickinson was more of the same.
Clark was Clark: She had 17 of her 28 points in the decisive first quarter and finished with another near triple-double by adding 10 assists and seven rebounds.
But the big question coming into this season was how to replace post players Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock. Monday, forward Hannah Stuelke and center Sharon Goodman had an answer, combining to shoot 16-of-18 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line for 41 points, while adding 13 rebounds. Forward Addison O’Grady and guard Sydney Affolter, also expected to have bigger impacts this season, combined for 20 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
The competition gets tougher vs. fellow 2023 Final Four team Virginia Tech on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Two-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley (27 points, 11 rebounds) led the Hokies to victory in their opener vs. High Point on Monday. — Voepel
It isn’t pretty when a trademark press stops working
The Buckeyes were missing something in Monday’s loss to USC, and Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff wasn’t shy about calling it out afterward. “The second quarter our physical and mental energy was really poor,” he said. “Bad turnovers. No energy on defense.”
The Buckeyes’ trademark press had little impact on the Trojans. Ohio State spent more time chasing Watkins and Rayah Marshall (18 points, 17 rebounds) than forcing turnovers and getting the easy baskets the full court defense usually produces.
Ohio State was outscored 31-10 in the second quarter and, despite recovering in the third, the energy level disappeared again in the fourth. It was a disappointing effort for a team that was a projected No. 1 seed in our final preseason Bracketology last week.
The Buckeyes were also missing another reliable scorer after Jacy Sheldon (28 points). Cotie McMahon, coming off a Big Ten Freshman of the Year season, and Celeste Taylor, one of the top transfers in the country, combined for just 14 points on 4-for-19 shooting.
Dawn Staley called it
Staley warned us that the Gamecocks — who lost six of their major contributors from last season — wouldn’t be rebuilding this year. And No. 6 South Carolina showed exactly why by dismantling Notre Dame. The backcourt had a strong day, as Raven Johnson and Te-Hina Paopao combined for 13 assists. Kamilla Cardoso got going in the second half, finishing with 20 points, 15 points and 4 blocks, while Sania Feagin chipped in 12 points off the bench.
The Gamecocks also showed off their trademark defense and ability to get going in transition. While Hidalgo went off, the Gamecocks limited the rest of Notre Dame to sub-30% shooting and forced 18 turnovers, held the Irish to just eight points in the second quarter and scored 30 fast-break points. — Philippou
The bracket is already scrambled
Bracketology history was made Monday. Never in the 20-plus-year history of projecting the bracket have two No. 1 seeds lost on the opening day of the season. Even more amazing, both upsets occurred on the same court.
The losses by Ohio State and LSU at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas stunned the college basketball world, especially LSU’s, and reaffirmed what so many thought this season would be: wide-open. An updated Bracketology comes out Tuesday and will have plenty of changes from last week’s final preseason projection. A good day for the Pac-12 with USC and the Buffs pulling the upsets will look even better Tuesday in the new bracket. — Creme