PALO ALTO, Calif. — Wait, hold on a minute. Upsets like this aren’t supposed to happen, especially during the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament on the women’s side.
On Sunday night, on its packed home court, a No. 1-seeded Stanford team fronted by a pair of all-Americans played as if it were struggling to learn the basics — layups and intelligent passing, to name two.
Mississippi, an eighth-seeded team laden with transfers, swarmed the court in waves, hitting virtually every crucial shot and seeming to put a body (or three or four) on every Cardinal attempting a shot near the basket.
Mississippi never trailed. When Stanford, at long last, tied the score in the final two minutes, Mississippi’s response was to clamp down even harder on defense, forcing the Cardinal into turnovers. Final score: Mississippi on top, 54-49.
What a game. What a moment for women’s basketball, where a boom in talented players and teams, along with fundamental changes in college sports, is adding fresh layers of competitive parity.
When it was over, I watched the entire Mississippi team and its effervescent coach dance at midcourt and take photos while standing on the Cardinal logo long after most of the home team’s fans had left Maples Pavilion.
Stanford’s players were left teary-eyed and stunned. “I think I’m in shock,” said guard Haley Jones, a third-team all-American. She and her teammate Cameron Brink, a second-team all-American this year, were N.C.A.A. champions in 2021.
But the shock did not keep Jones from taking a wider view. This game, she acknowledged in a news conference, had a deeper meaning than most upsets.
“We hate to be the ones for it to happen to,” she said. “But it says a lot about women’s basketball to have an eighth seed like Ole Miss, as talented as they are.
“It’s definitely growth for the women’s game.”
To say that such a loss is rare is to undersell it, especially in women’s basketball, where talent has typically been concentrated at the top and the lack of depth in the game has often been exposed in March.
Only four top seeds had failed to make it to the round of 16 in the women’s tournament since 1994, when it expanded to 64 teams.
By contrast, 20 top seeds had failed to make it to the final 16 in the men’s tournament during that time frame. The latest victims suffered the indignity of defeat just last week: Kansas, which fell to Arkansas, and top-seeded Purdue, which absorbed one of the biggest losses in N.C.A.A. history when it succumbed to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, an outcome that was on nobody’s bracket.
When I asked Mississippi Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin about the meaning of her team’s win for women’s basketball, she talked about the growing talent pool.
“That’s what I was telling my team,” said McPhee-McCuin, 40, who is one of the few Black women leading a team in this tournament and who is beloved by her players for her nonstop energy.
McPhee-McCuin, who is known by her players as Coach Yo, said she had been sure to focus her squad on Fairleigh Dickinson’s win over Purdue in the men’s tournament. “We’ve got to normalize that for the women’s game,” she said, noting that, in her view, women are too often conditioned to rein in their self-belief, which can make slaying favored opponents that much more difficult.
Coach Yo has no shortage of confidence. She turned around a Mississippi team that in 2020 went winless in the Southeastern Conference, and made it clear on this trip that she represents change in women’s basketball.
She announced without hesitation that she is part of a new breed of young, hungry newcomers who have deep respect for legendary peers like Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer but also plan to shake up the status quo. “I’m the future of women’s basketball,” she said boldly after her team trounced a tough Gonzaga team by 23 points on Friday.
The future will be far different. The women’s game is changing in seismic ways.
More news media attention. More buzz in the stadiums. More capacity crowds.
A half-century after Title IX, the landmark legislation that led to greater opportunity for women and girls in high school and college sports, several generations of female players have played the game at a high level, creating a steadily improving stream of talent.
More recently, changes in endorsement rules allowing players to profit from their skills have boosted the game. Mississippi is one of the women’s teams benefiting from a collective that pays a stipend to each player.
Ten years ago, it was uncommon for players to transfer. Now the rules have changed, and movement is the new norm. Coach Yo is known to say that she goes to the transfer portal as if she were shopping at the grocery store.
Over the last two seasons, she has brought in eight players from other schools. On Sunday night against the Cardinal, many played significant roles, none bigger than Myah Taylor, a sparkling point guard who once starred at rival Mississippi State and scored only 3 points but who led her team as if she were conducting a symphony.
Can Ole Miss repeat this kind of performance next weekend?
Can other underdog teams duplicate it in future N.C.A.A. tournaments?
Let us hope.
Part of what makes the N.C.A.A. tournament so great is the combination of early-round upsets and last-gasp finishes, with upstarts knocking the wind out of higher-ranked teams.
Those kinds of games have been common in men’s tournaments. Think 13th-seeded Valparaiso, a school much of America has not heard of, knocking out … ahem, Mississippi, a No. 4 seed, on Bryce Drew’s last-gasp heave in the first round of the 1998 tournament.
Hopefully, the Mississippi women’s squad marching into Stanford, undaunted and undeterred on the way to victory, is a sign of things to come.
But who knows. Predicting the future in sports is often a fool’s errand, so after watching Sunday’s thrilling game from courtside, I will just say this: