March Madness is living up to the hype, and so are its top Canadians

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Last night’s NCAA women’s basketball quarterfinal showdown between Iowa and LSU did not disappoint. With a spot in the Final Four at stake, Iowa sensation Caitlin Clark delivered a signature performance, scoring 41 points with 12 assists to lead the Hawkeyes to a 94-87 win over the defending champs in a rematch of last year’s landmark national title game.

LSU star Angel Reese, the trash-talking (or at least trash-gesturing) foil to Clark last year, was excellent too. The 6-foot-3 forward scored 17 points and grabbed 20 rebounds despite reaggravating an ankle injury in the second quarter, when her dominance around the hoop had the Tigers up by four.

And, of course, LSU coach Kim Mulkey did Kim Mulkey things. Colourful pantsuit? Check. Fiery sideline antics? Check. The full Mulkey experience was on display after that long-awaited Washington Post profile of the Don Cherry-flavoured coach finally dropped over the weekend. (Turns out, it was a nuanced portrait of a complicated person, not the “hit piece” Mulkey primed her supporters to expect.)

After vanquishing LSU, Clark will now try to slay the most successful program in the history of women’s college basketball. Her opponent on Friday night in Cleveland is Connecticut, which is headed to the Final Four for an incredible 15th time in the last 16 tournaments — a run that includes six of the school’s record 11 women’s national championships. The Huskies are hungry too: their last title came eight years ago, and their streak of 14 straight Final Fours ended last year with a loss in the Sweet 16.

Despite a slew of injuries this season, UConn looks like UConn again for one big reason: Paige Bueckers is back. Three years ago, the high-scoring 6-foot guard was sort of a proto-Caitlin Clark, winning national player of the year honours as a freshman — something that had never been done in the women’s game. But a knee injury cost her a large chunk of her sophomore season before another (off-season) injury to the same knee sidelined her for all of 2022-23. Finally healthy, Bueckers is averaging 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists in the tournament after leading UConn to an 80-73 win over freshman phenom JuJu Watkins’ USC in the Elite Eight.

Bueckers’ main sidekick — and the best Canadian player in women’s college basketball — is forward Aaliyah Edwards. She’s UConn’s No. 2 scorer (17.6 points per game) and leading rebounder (9.3) since the start of the season. The sturdy senior, who’s expected to be picked early in the upcoming WNBA draft, had 24 points and six rebounds in the Final Four-clinching victory against USC.

The winner of Friday’s UConn-Iowa matchup is likely to face top-ranked South Carolina for the national championship on Sunday. The Gamecocks are an absurd 72-1 since the start of the 2022-23 season after rolling into the Final Four undefeated for the second time in a row. Last year, Clark took them out with 41 points in the national semis. South Carolina hopes to avoid another such upset against NC State, the weakest team in the Final Four.

The men have been overshadowed by the women since Clark burst into the spotlight last spring. But the guys’ Final Four looks pretty interesting too — including a literal giant matchup featuring the best Canadian in all of college basketball.

WATCH | Canada’s Edey attributes family support to continued success:

Canadian Zach Edey dominates NCAA March Madness

Canadian Zach Edey is putting up a dominating performance, leading Purdue into the final ‘sweet 16’ in the NCAA men’s March Madness. While he’s now a rising star, Edey attributes a lot of his success to the continued support of his family.

Zach Edey, the top scorer and No. 2 rebounder in NCAA men’s ball this season, is favoured to repeat as player of the year after leading Purdue to its first Final Four since 1980. The 7-foot-4, 300-pound centre went off for 40 points and 16 boards (plus one emotional post-game f-bomb) in the Boilermakers’ 72-66 victory over Tennessee in the Elite Eight. Forgive the big man for getting fired up: last year, his team became just the second No. 1 seed ever to lose to a 16 in the first round. Now they’re two wins away from a national championship with Edey averaging a monster 30 points and 16 rebounds in the tournament.

On Saturday night in Phoenix, Edey will go toe to (very large) toe with DJ Burns, the delightfully rotund 6-foot-9, 275-pound folk hero for Cinderella NC State. The deceptively skilled big man, averaging 13 points on the season, exploded for 29 in the Wolfpack’s upset of Duke in the Elite Eight.

NC State is an 11 seed — tied for the lowest ever to reach the Final Four. And this is the Wolfpack’s first trip to the national semis since legendary coach Jim Valvano’s shocking title-game upset of Houston in 1983.

The winner of the Purdue-NC State game will probably face top-ranked juggernaut UConn for the title on Monday night. The Huskies look very much poised to become the first repeat men’s champ in 17 years after blowing out their four opponents so far by an average of almost 28 points. Standing in their way of a return to the national-title game is Alabama, a 4-seeded Final Four newbie that won the softest region in the bracket.

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