Record 13 Kiwis feature in the NCAA Big Dance Tournaments

Record 13 Kiwis feature in the NCAA Big Dance Tournaments
Twelve months ago, Basketball New Zealand celebrated a record eight Kiwis participating in the NCAA Division I Tournaments – five women and three men. This year, that record has been smashed.

The 2019 Men’s and Women’s Tournaments that begin this week will see the number of New Zealanders participating at an unprecedented level with thirteen players – seven women and six men involved.

The most prestigious tournament in NCAA Division 1 Basketball, also known and branded as March Madness or the Big Dance, features 68 teams in the Men’s Tournament.

The champions from the 32 Division 1 conferences are joined by the 36 teams chosen by the NCAA selection committee by awarding the colleges ‘at-large’ berths. 

The Division I Women’s Tournament follows an almost identical format to the Men’s, the only difference being that just 32 at-large bids are added to the 32 conference champions, making a draw of 64 teams.

Of the eight Kiwis that participated in 2018, Jack Salt and Matt Freeman, are returning for a second successive year.

In fact Jack Salt and the Cavaliers have progressed to the NCAA Tournament every season during his five years (one as a red shirt freshman) at Virginia University. The Tall Blacks centre is in good form having posted a career high 18 points (7/8FG, 4/5FT) last week against North Carolina State. He also co-captains the team.

In something of an upset Virginia were ousted 69-59 at the semi-final stage of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament by Florida State. Despite the defeat Virginia still head to the NCAA Tournament as one of four top seeds on the back of an outstanding season in which they have accumulated 29 wins and just three defeats. 

Matt Freeman and the Oklahoma University Sooners didn’t qualify automatically but received an at-large berth and will face the University of Mississippi in the first round on Friday. The forward has made 82 appearances for Oklahoma. This will be the Sooners sixth NCAA appearance in the last eight seasons.

Sam Timmins and Washington University Huskies deservedly received a ticket after putting together a 26-8 record. The Huskies won the Pac-12 Regular Season Championship but lost to Oregon in the Tournament Final necessitating an at-large invite. Timmins, the former Otago Boys High and Tall Blacks centre will play his 99th game for the Huskies when they lineup against Utah State on Saturday.

Tobias Cameron, son of FIBA Hall of Famer Pero Cameron, is in his first year at Abilene Christian University. The ACU Wildcats had a historic win as they booked a spot at the Big Dance for the first time with a 77-60 win in the Southland Conference Tournament Final. The Cats boast a 27-6 record this season but face a daunting prospect drawn against perennial powerhouse Kentucky in the first round. Cameron has made 22 appearances for ACU in his freshman season.

Also claiming a conference title and automatic entry are the St Mary’s College California Gaels and the freshman pair of Dan Fotu and Quinn Clinton.

The Gaels became West Coast Conference Champions by upsetting the number-one ranked Gonzaga (that boasted a 30-3 record) in the Tournament Final winning 60-47. Fotu (North Harbour) has played in all 33 games for the Gaels making a start on four occasions. Cantabrian Clinton has made 21 appearances.

There will also be major New Zealand involvement at the NCAA Division I Women’s Tournament with a trio of Kiwis at both Fordham University and Brigham Young University (BYU) set for the Big Dance, as well as Esra McGoldrick at North Carolina State.

The three Kiwis in the BYU Cougars lineup are Wellington’s Shalae Salmon and Hawkes Bay native Khaedin Taito plus redshirt freshman Kaylee Smiler from the Waikato. The West Coast Conference champions defeated Gonzaga 82-68 to capture their third WCC title since 2011. 

Competing at the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 the Cougars will meet Auburn at Stanford on Saturday riding an eight game winning streak. Salmon is the most experienced of the New Zealand trio at BYU having played 84 games for the Cougars to date.

The Fordham University Rams trio of Mary Goulding (Canterbury), Kendell Heremaia (Waikato) and Zara Jillings (North Harbour) were crowned Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament champions after defeating fellow Kiwi Akiene-Tera Reed and Virginia Commonwealth University 62-47 in the final. The two teams had shared the A-10 regular season title, but it was Fordham that progressed led by All-Conference Fist Team selection Mary Goulding who posted 19 points against VCU. Fordham face a stiff challenge in the NCAA Tournament opening round travelling to Syracuse (24-8) ranked 12th of the 64 competing teams.

Esra McGoldrick is a freshman at North Carolina State and the Wolfpack received an at-large invitation on the back of a strong 26-5 season. It will obviously be the Cantabrian forward’s first experience of the Big Dance although for the Wolfpack it will be their third straight visit to the NCAA Tournament and 25th trip overall. They will host University of Maine in the first round on Sunday and will be confident of progressing having beaten the Black Bears 84-46 earlier in the season.

NCAA First round games (NZ Time)


Men:

Friday March 22, 12.20pm; St Mary’s (Dan Fotu & Quinn Clinton) v Villanova
Friday March 22, 12.10pm; Abilene Christian (Tobias Cameron) v Kentucky
Saturday March 23, 5.40am; Oklahoma (Matt Freeman) v Mississippi
Saturday March 23, 8.10am; Virginia (Jack Salt) v Gardner-Webb
Saturday March 23, 11.50am; Washington (Sam Timmins) v Utah State

Women:

Sunday March 24, 6.00am; North Carolina State (Esra McGoldrick) v Maine
Sunday March 24, 6.00am; Fordham (Mary Goulding, Kendell Heremaia & Zara Jillings) v Syracuse
Sunday March 24, 8.300am; BYU (Shalae Salmon, Khaedin Taito & Kaylee Smiler) v Auburn
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