The beginning of March heralds the arrival of college basketball’s infamous March Madness. It’s the time of the year when individual awards are bestowed, conference tournament titles are competed for and spots at prestigious National Championships are decided.
As always, the landscape changes frequently – as once conference tournaments get underway, the participating teams play on a near-daily basis until a championship winner is found. We will provide regular updates on how our Kiwi players are faring, keeping an eye across the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), NIAI (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) and NJCCA (National Junior College Athletic Association) tournaments.
So what has happened so far?
NCAA Division I Women
History has been made. Former Junior Tall Ferns teammates Helen Matthews and Charlisse Leger-Walker have claimed the headlines as their NCAA teams have featured in championship games for the first time – although with differing results.
Charlisse Leger-Walker’s Washington State Cougars dream run at the Pac 12 Conference Tournament has carried them all the way to a first ever championship. The seventh ranked Cougars saw off second seed – and number three ranked team in the nation – Utah in the quarter-finals, then powered away from third seed Colorado (with Kiwi Charlotte Whittaker) in the semi-final, before outlasting UCLA 65-61 in the Grand Final. This win gives the Cougars direct entry to the NCAA Tournament later in the month.
Leger-Walker was simply outstanding in every game. The Tall Ferns guard was voted the Most Outstanding Player at the Pac-12 Tournament after averaging 19 points across the four games. In the final against UCLA, she shot 7 from 11 from the field and sank 5-7 from outside the arc for her 23 points, while also grabbing 7 rebounds and dishing 3 assists.
Helen Matthews and Wofford College Terriers also created their own bit of history, as Wofford claimed a first ever Southern Conference regular season title. This regular season trophy was not just the first title for the Terriers basketball programme, but actually the first by any women’s team sport at Wofford College.
However they came up just short in the Conference Tournament, losing 53-63 to Chattanooga in the Grand Final. Despite the loss, Matthews produced something special on the big stage in scoring a career-high 25 points along with 4 rebounds, 2 steals and a block. The Cantabrians performance earned her selection to the All-Tournament Second team, which itself follows her selection to the Southern Conference All-Defensive team last week.
The NCAA’s West Coast Conference has the strongest contingent of Kiwis, with nine players involved in the conference tournament.
Tayla Dalton scored 11 points, claimed 6 rebounds and dished 4 assists while Jade Kirisome – playing her 108th Division I game – made a pair of three pointers for her 6 points as St Mary’s College were beaten 77-82 by Pacific. The second-round defeat eliminated St Mary’s from the West Coast Conference Tournament (WCCT).
There was better news from the WCCT, with Brigham Young University (BYU) working their way to the semi-finals with a 66-56 win against San Francisco. Arielle Mackey-Williams and Kaylee Smiler combined to make 6-7 threes, with Mackey-Williams finishing with 14 points while Smiler – playing her 101st game for BYU – scoring 6 points. BYU will take on top seed Gonzaga in the semi-final.
On the other half of the draw, second seed Portland University Pilots earned a bye directly to the semis after finishing runners-up in the regular season. The duo of Emme Shearer and Melika Samia will line up with their Pilots teammates against Pacific, with both semi-finals set to be played on Tuesday.
NCAA Division I Men
Ahead of the Conference Tournaments which get underway this week, there have been some individual and collective Kiwi successes to report.
Ben Gold scored 4 points on a perfect 2-2 shooting as Marquette University Blue Demons pulled away for a 72-56 victory at Butler University. The win clinched Marquette’s first ever outright Big East Conference regular season title. Given Marquette were picked ninth in the preseason poll, it’s a remarkable result for the Blue Demons; and in only his freshman season Gold has been a contributor off the bench in every game for a squad ranked sixth-best amongst all Division I teams.
Meanwhile University of California Irvine clinched a share of the Big West Conference regular season title with a 52-44 victory over CSU Bakersfield. Forward Akiva McBirney-Griffin, an NBL championship winner with Otago Nuggets in 2021, has enjoyed a solid freshman year earning 8 starts in his 28 appearances.
Flynn Cameron had 16 points and 5 assists as UC Riverside clinched third seed at the Big West Conference Tournament after a 73-72 overtime win at Cal Poly. The 5 assists pushed Cameron up to fifth spot on UCR’s single season record for assists made – he has 108 in 32 games in this campaign.
As mentioned, the conference tournaments begin this week, although a couple of individual awards have already been handed down:
Callum McRae (Sacramento State Hornets University) was named to the Third Team All-Big Sky Conference. He averaged 12.8ppg and 9.3rpg – with his 9.3 rebounds placing him 23rd in the nation from over 4,000 Division I athletes – and also set the Hornets record for most double-doubles in a season with 10.
Kruz Perrott-Hunt (University of South Dakota Coyotes) was named to the Summit League honourable mention team. Perrott-Hunt finished the regular season as the Coyotes leading scorer averaging 14.2 points per game, and in February became just the fifth Kiwi to score over 1,000 points in Men’s NCAA Division I basketball.
NCAA Division II Women
Ella Bradley played alongside Helen Matthews and Charlisse Leger-Walker at the U17 World Cup in Belarus in 2018. She and her University of Texas at Tyler Patriots teammates will wait anxiously to see if they earn a selection to the NCAA Division II National Championship, after losing the Lone Star Conference Tournament semi-final to Angelo State 62-53.
Bradley has had an outstanding season for the 24-7 Patriots – leading the team in blocks (20), second best in rebounding (3.8rpg) in addition to 6.1 points per game.
Also waiting nervously for an at large selection will be Hannah Wentworth and Eckerd College Tritons. Beaten in the Sunshine State Tournament semi’s, Eckerd finished with a 24-5 record – Wentworth playing in all 29 games while averaging 11.8 points. The former Harbour guard made the most 3 pointers in a single season in team history, hitting 89 triples at a 40% success rate.
NCAA Division II Men
Hawaii at Hilo University Vulcans wing Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones earned his third selection to a Pac-West Conference team. Having previously won Freshman of the Year and Newcomer in previous seasons, Tait-Jones was named to the 2023 Pac-West First Team after averaging 17.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and leading the Vulcans in both statistical categories.
NAIA Men and Women
Corey Le’aupepe and Menlo College failed to reach the Golden State Conference play-offs after finishing with a 7-11 record. However the former St Pat’s and Wellington forward had the satisfaction of bringing up 1,000 career points in the final month of his collegiate career; only the 10th player in the programme’s history to reach the notable milestone.
Taranaki’s Nico Hill and Missouri Baptist University clinched back-to-back American Mid-West Conference titles with a 12-4 record (16-12 overall). Hill played all 28 games for the Spartans, averaging 7.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
The Waikato duo of Kael Robinson and Maxim Stephens, both playing for Rocky Mountain College, were named to the Cascade Conference All-First Team. Robinson, who played for the Franklin Bulls in the 2022 Sal’s NBL, was second on the team in scoring averaging 11.9 points per game – tenth best in the conference. In 2022 Robinson was named Frontier Conference Freshman of the Year.
Stephens, a former Junior Tall Blacks forward was Rocky’s leading scorer, averaging 13.6 points per game – sixth best in the conference – along with 6.4 rebounds.
Maxim’s sister Monique Stephens, a sophomore at Rocky Mountain will – for the second year running – compete at the NAIA Women’s National Championships. Rocky received an at-large bid and will face Menlo College on March 7 in Lewiston, Idaho. Stephens played all 29 games for the Battlin Bears, making 28 starts averaging 9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.