Several freshmen showed no jitters on the opening day of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
In fact, they embraced the bright lights of the Big Dance.
It came as no surprise that Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, the nation’s leading scorer during the regular season, began a run of impressive performances in the first game of the tournament. UConn’s Paige Bueckers showed why she’s All-American as a freshman, while teammate Aaliyah Edwards started with a double-double.
There were others, including Anaya Boyd, who averages only eight minutes a game for Georgia Tech but made major contributions down the stretch to help the Yellow Jackets avoid being upset in the first round.
Clark, a second-team All-American, said she was a little nervous before tipoff. She said playing the first game of the day and not sitting around all day waiting to play or watching games on TV was a benefit.
“And more than anything,” Clark said, “it’s just a dream come true to be out there playing in the NCAA Tournament.”
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said his talented freshman is used to playing on big stages.
“She’s always played up, you know?” Bluder said. “She won a national championship with her AAU team. She’s played for USA Basketball. So having those experiences have helped her.”
A look at some of the freshmen who made an impact in their women’s NCAA Tournament debuts:
Clark didn’t match her 26.7-point a game scoring average, but she finished with 23 points, seven rebounds seven assists playing a team-high 36 minutes. She also had two steals to go with three turnovers.
She had one of the highlight plays of the day with a behind-the-back pass to Monika Czinano in the paint late in Iowa’s win over Central Michigan.
The guard nicknamed Buckets turned in one of the best tournament debuts by a freshman in UConn history. She scored 24 points as the top-seeded Huskies routed High Point and wasn’t far from a triple-double with nine rebounds and six assists. Edwards showed serious efficiency in 25 minutes, making 8 of her 10 shots for 17 points and grabbing 12 rebounds for the double-double.
“This has been like an ongoing thing all year where us freshmen need to perform in order for us to win, so we just try to do that each and every day,” Bueckers said.
Georgia Tech Nell Fortner had no problem calling freshman Anaya Boyd’s number in crunch time. Boyd played 10 of her 12 minutes in the Yellow Jackets’ win against Stephen F. Austin in the fourth quarter and overtime.
She showed no signs of being tight. The 44.4% free throw shooter during the season made two with 1:12 remaining in regulation to tie the game at 48, then Boyd blocked a layup by Avery Brittingtham with 55 seconds left to force overtime.
That helped overcome another strong debut by Stephen F. Austin’s talented freshman.
Brittingham hit all six of her free throws and finished with a double-double, 16 points and 11 rebounds in her tournament debut.
Syracuse freshman center Kamilla Cardoso, who hails from Montes Claros, Brazil, showed no signs of nerves in her first tournament game, a 72-55 win over South Dakota State. The 6-foot-7 ACC freshman of the year blocked South Dakota State’s first shot attempt, grabbed Syracuse’s first rebound and scored the first point of the game on a free throw.
She finished with six blocks and diverted countless other shots with her long arms in the paint. She scored 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting from the floor and 4-of-6 shooting from the line. Teammate Emily Engstler said Cardoso’s growth has been better than hers as a freshman.
“She can actually shoot the basketball too,” Engstler said. “She’s strong down low, and I say this. A lot of 6-7 girls don’t know how to control their body too well. Kamilla does. That’s a skillset that will get her into the WNBA.”
OREGON STATE’S FRESHMEN
Sasha Goforth came to Oregon State from Fayetteville, Arkansas, as a McDonald’s All-American. She added a start in her first tournament game to every other game this season for the Beavers. Goforth didn’t come close to her season-high, but she knocked down 5 of her 7 shots for 14 points and grabbed three rebounds.
Teammate Talia von Oelhoffen could still be in high school but chose to arrive at Oregon State early. She played 27 minutes, scoring seven points and handed out four assists in an 83-59 rout of Florida State.
WASHINGTON STATE WONDER
Freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker had 18 points but it wasn’t enough for Washington State, which fell to South Florida 57-53 in an opening round game on Sunday night.
The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year also had five rebounds and four assists, and was 8 for 8 from the line. But her memorable moment came in the fourth quarter, with a perfectly executed behind-the-back pass to teammate Bella Murekatete for the basket.
Leger-Walker, who is from New Zealand, joined older sister Krystal this season with the Cougars, who were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 but wound up making their first tournament field since 1991.
“It’s awesome to prove people wrong. Just going in with a chip on your shoulder, doing things that no one expected you to do or expect you to do, even when you do prove yourself. We started well this season, and even a couple games in people didn’t think we were a competitive team. We had to keep proving it over and over throughout the season,” she said.
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.
More AP women’s college basketball coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball