- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
- 0 Shares
Boston College and Minnesota are playing in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
But don't be fooled. Both programs are relatively new to the national scene.
While both teams have built themselves into top-25 programs in recent years, Boston College had never played in the NCAA Tournament before 1999. Minnesota had been once, in 1994, and is now playing in just its fourth Big Dance.
Sunday's winner will advance to its first Elite Eight. But there's something bigger at stake: respect. At the national level.
Yes, Minnesota has Lindsay Whalen, who has garnered a lot of media attention from coast to coast. But the Gophers have largely been lurking in the shadows in the Big Ten, behind Penn State and Purdue. Boston College is in the same situation in the Big East, often second tier in the conference behind Connecticut and perhaps even Notre Dame and Rutgers.
This is the breakout game. This gives one of these teams -- both of which are full of competitive, hard-working kids -- the chance to take their program to another level, to win over fans outside of Minneapolis and Massachusetts. And that is a good thing.
A look at the matchup:
Boston College: In last year's NCAA Tournament, the Eagles started to win over a lot of fans and were on their way to getting fitted for the glass slipper before falling to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. As a fifth seed, BC beat both 12th-seeded Old Dominion and fourth-seeded Vanderbilt on last-second shots from Amber Jacobs.
This year, No. 3 seed Boston College needed another late basket to put away 14th-seeded Eastern Michigan in the first round -- this time, freshman Kathrin Ress scored the game-winner with 12 seconds left. The Eagles then played fantastic in the second round, beating sixth-seeded Ohio State 63-48 on the Buckeyes' home court. Ohio State was averaging almost 69 points, but BC's defense clamped down, holding the Buckeyes scoreless for nearly eight minutes.
You might not have heard of many of BC's players just yet, but the Eagles' second straight appearance in the Sweet 16 is no fluke. Cathy Inglese is a bright, young coach who has the Eagles playing very good ball. And remember, this is the team that sent Connecticut home with a loss in the Big East tournament semifinals, then went on to beat Rutgers for their first Big East championship title. Playing in the Big East has given the Eagles tremendous confidence and know-how in big games.
Minnesota: When some players return from an injury, they are sometimes hesitant or not as fit as they were. That's not the case for Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen, who came back at an extraordinary level. No one was even sure she'd be able to return in time for the tournament, especially since the cast on her shooting hand didn't even come off until the day after Selection Sunday. And yet, the All-American put in a pair of fantastic performances to lead the Gophers to the Sweet 16.
Like Boston College, Minnesota is a very good shooting team that can read defenses and moves well without the ball. But mentally, the Gophers must be on their Ps and Qs because Boston College can execute you to death. Whereas Whalen can ad-lib her offense, the Eagles are much more structured, especially in the half court.
Boston College, on the other hand, might have a tough time matching up with junior center Janel McCarville in the middle. She is playing the best basketball of her career.
Minnesota is a great team, but Whalen makes them a legitimate contender. Like all great players, she lifts her game come tournament time. Whalen is a stud.
This game will come down to turnovers. Whichever team commits fewer turnovers and takes quality shots will win.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.