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Three weekends remain in the NCAA tournament, but with 32 games in the books, we're more than halfway done. The first round offered plenty of drama, but it also leaves us with plenty of intrigue as to what's ahead.
This one is difficult to answer from behind a keyboard, so some expert assistance is required.
A senior for Oakland University (yes, she and her teammates spend a lot of time in airports explaining that, no, it's not in California; it's in Michigan), Nicole DeLuca sparked the sort of loud, physical, uninhibited celebration that makes this time of year about so much more than one team holding a championship trophy when she slotted home the clinching kick from the penalty spot in a shootout following a 1-1 draw against No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday night.
It was the first NCAA tournament win in Oakland history, the second for a team from the Summit League and one of only two instances in the first round of this season's tournament in which seeded teams were eliminated. It earns the Golden Grizzlies a place in the second round and a trip to Tallahassee, Fla., to face Texas A&M this week.
But all of that is what it means. What about how it feels?
"Last night, it kind of didn't even seem real," DeLuca said Sunday. "And then this morning, waking up and realizing that it actually was, it's a great feeling. Not only knowing that we were Summit League champs and then conference [tournament] champs, and then also recording our first actual win in the NCAA tournament made it even better."
As so often seems to be the case, the stories behind it are as remarkable as the result. For one thing, the last time DeLuca took a penalty this season, in a game in October, she sent the ball wide of goal. She said she didn't have a shot picked out as she walked to the spot against the Buckeyes, but she ended up putting the ball precisely where she meant to put the missed opportunity all those weeks ago.
And as it turned out, her kick only won the game because a goalkeeper who didn't even play the sport when she started high school came up with a performance of a lifetime.
A basketball player growing up, Shannon Coley took up soccer after a coach at her school urged her to try it. Stuck on junior varsity and getting beat with regularity at first, she didn't much care for it.
Four years later she was playing for a Division I program at Oakland. A fifth-year senior, Saturday could have been the end of her college career.
Three times Ohio State players stepped to the spot in the first three rounds of the shootout. Three times Coley made the save, waiting, trying not to guess, trying to do what her coaches taught her and read each shooter's body.
Never mind it was her first shootout. Not of the season. Not of her college career. Ever.
Standing near the end line as she waited for another turn she hoped wouldn't come, Coley was about as far from her teammates as it was physically possible to be when DeLuca's ball found the back of the net. That left her staring into the open mouths of about two dozen screaming soccer players approaching at a dead sprint.
"It was a little scary," Coley said. "They knocked me over. But it felt great -- it felt great to come up big for the team."
There is another game, one the Golden Grizzlies think they can win, even if few others do, much like the game they just played. But win or lose against Texas A&M, the sound of silence shattered by screams of jubilation, the sight of DeLuca turning first one way, then the other, unsure where to run to celebrate, all of it will stay with them.
Only a handful of players ever get to celebrate a championship. But a tournament isn't always about the last game.
"That's why you have all those practices and do all those sprints and play all those nonconference games," DeLuca said. "It's to get ready for games like this, to come in and show teams we deserve to be where we're at. We've actually been talking about this for a while, winning a game in the NCAA tournament. It's something we've gotten closer and closer to every year, and to know that you've finally reached such a goal, it's a great feeling.
"To know you are one of those top 32 teams left in the nation is even more incredible."
So that's how it feels.
Home field matters ... maybe: Of the 32 teams that played at home in the first round, 24 advanced. That's a convincing performance for the home teams, but seeded teams accounted for most of the damage. Leaving out No. 3 Baylor, which played and won on the road at Arizona State, seeded teams went 13-0-2 at home in the first round, with only Ohio State failing to advance. In 16 games between unseeded teams, home teams posted a more modest 8-6-2 record, with six teams failing to advance. Home-field advantage helps a little. Home-talent advantage helps a lot.
The Big East lives to play another weekend; the Pac-12 looks top heavy: Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame and Rutgers all advanced to the second round, with Georgetown's 3-2 overtime win at Virginia Tech and Rutgers' 1-0 win at Colgate giving the maligned conference two of those five road wins for unseeded teams. All of that while former leaguemate West Virginia endured a first-round loss at home against Princeton. Meanwhile, Stanford and UCLA fared just fine, but the rest of the Pac-12 failed to do anything to suggest the league can challenge the ACC on depth. Arizona State and Washington both lost at home, Washington State lost on the road, and Cal barely survived Pepperdine.
The MAC knows drama: The MAC has one team in the second round and came seconds away from having two teams there. Then again, it also came seconds from having no teams there. On Saturday, Central Michigan led Michigan by a goal with 40 seconds to play when Clare Stachel tied the game for the Wolverines. Five minutes into the first overtime, Nkem Ezurike scored the winner to send Michigan to the second round for the first time since 2003. The script flipped a day later, with MAC regular-season and tournament champion Miami down a goal on the road against Tennessee with nine seconds left, only to see Kelsey Dinges equalize and send the game to overtime. Five minutes into the extra session, pardon the deja vu, Dinges set up Kayla Zakrzewski for the winner. Miami will face Duke in the second round.
Welcome back Princeton: One of the more remarkable tournament performances in recent seasons, in soccer or any sport, was Princeton's run to the College Cup in 2004. The Tigers hadn't won a game in the NCAA tournament since beating Washington in the quarterfinals that season, but that changed with a 2-1 win at West Virginia. Not surprisingly, the winner came from Jen Hoy. The senior is the leading scorer remaining in the field, with 18 goals in 18 games.
Status quo at the top: Its game against Utah State delayed a day by heavy snow in Provo, BYU had a few tense moments to withstand in an eventual 2-1 win, but the top seeds largely breezed into the second round. If you see something in wins for Florida State, Penn State or Stanford, or even No. 2 seeds Florida, North Carolina, San Diego State and Virginia, that rings major alarm bells, more power to you.
Boston College at Penn State: The RPI says Stanford has the toughest second-round game among the No. 1 seeds, but perhaps because of what the Cardinal did to the Broncos earlier this season, the game in State College, Pa., feels like a trickier test. The Eagles are unseeded for a reason, namely inconsistency on the defensive end, and that's not good against an attack like that of Penn State. At the same time, Boston College is prone to occasional moments of brilliance, like its win against Florida State, has a player as good as any in the tournament in Kristie Mewis and is no stranger to tough road environments after playing at Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke this season.
California at San Diego State: This is more likely to lack drama than the others on the list, but that's part of what makes it compelling. San Diego State did what a No. 2 seed should do in the first round, dispatching Cal State Northridge with an efficient 3-0 win (Northridge had an edge in shots but forced just one save). That's five clean sheets in a row for the Aztecs, and should set them up to take care of business against a Cal team that squeaked by Pepperdine and lost to Missouri, Santa Clara, UCLA and Stanford in the regular season. But with potential games against UCLA and Stanford to follow, if all goes well, can Megan Jurado and San Diego State avoid sweating this one out?
Central Florida at Florida: There shouldn't be a snoozer in Gainesville all weekend, and we'll get to the other second-round game at the site in a moment. Florida held Florida Gulf Coast without a shot in a 2-0 win in the first round, but the in-state competition only gets tougher. Not that the SEC champions likely need any reminder. It was Central Florida that eliminated Florida at the same stage and in the same place last season, a 3-2 win for the Golden Knights in which their first goal was scored by Madison Barney, younger sister of Florida's McKenzie Barney.
Notre Dame versus Wake Forest: Sure, part of the attraction is the name recognition, not that there is anything wrong with that, but Notre Dame's present and future are almost as intriguing as its past. The Fighting Irish scored three goals in a first-round win against Milwaukee, the first time they scored multiple goals in a game since Oct. 7. In their tournament opener, the Demon Deacons looked the part of a team that made the College Cup last season, getting two goals from All-America forward Katie Stengel and another from partner in crime Rachel Nuzzolese in a 4-0 win against Georgia Southern.
Baylor at North Carolina: Baylor won its first NCAA tournament game a season ago and then learned how difficult it is to keep winning when it dropped a 5-0 decision against North Carolina in Gainesville. That lesson seems to have fueled them to bigger and better things this season, but a rematch with the Tar Heels, unlikely to be troubled by Baylor's direct style, would be a good way to prove it once and for all. Baylor senior Hanna Gilmore has four goals and an assist in the past four games, including one in the win at Arizona State.
UCLA at San Diego State: While San Diego State has Cal, UCLA doesn't have an easy second-round game, either, facing a Kentucky team that is best at home but could push the Bruins. But if the two seeds meet Sunday, the Southern California derby is arguably the best game on the schedule. Their last meeting in any setting was a 5-0 UCLA win in the second round of the 2009 NCAA tournament. This one would be a better game.
Texas A&M at Florida State: At various points during the season, this looked like a potential quarterfinal, if not even a potential College Cup pairing. But if Texas A&M ends Oakland's run, and Florida State deals with Texas Tech, it would set up a game between two of the top statistical defenses in the country. With Annie Kunz, Shea Groom and Kelley Monogue, the Aggies have offensive pieces to put pressure on the balanced Seminoles, but a 1-0 win against Stephen F. Austin in the first round was the latest in a string of finishing struggles.
Duke at Virginia: The first ACC rematch in the NCAA tournament could take place in Charlottesville, where Virginia edged Duke in a 1-0 decision earlier this season. Both teams turned on the scoring in the first round, Virginia getting late firepower in a 4-1 win against a very good La Salle team and Duke routing Loyola 6-0 behind a hat trick from Kaitlyn Kerr. After a season of injuries and players on international duty, Duke's quarterfinal loss in the ACC tournament, and the rest it allowed, might have been the best thing that happened to last year's national finalist.
For religious reasons, BYU does not compete in athletic events on Sundays. Based on rule 220.127.116.11 in the NCAA bylaws, schools that "submit its written policy to the governing sports committee on or before September 1 of each academic year" are protected from having those observances affect their participation in championships. This week, that just means the games in BYU's four-team pod will be played Thursday and Saturday, instead of the Friday-Sunday schedule in place at the other seven sites. But should BYU reach the championship game, currently scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 2, the NCAA has confirmed the game will be played a day earlier, on Dec. 1.