November 8, 2023 

How Colorado beat LSU, USC took down Ohio State

Sights and sounds from a Las Vegas opening day doubleheader

LAS VEGAS — Christmas usually only comes once a year but for college basketball fans, it happens to be in early November. The season officially tipped-off on Monday and the biggest action in women’s college basketball on opening day was in Las Vegas at the Hall of Fame series. The event had two games featuring four ranked teams, including the reigning national champions: LSU-Colorado, and USC-Ohio State. In both games, the Pac-12 schools upset their higher-ranked opponents and put the country on notice that it may be the league’s last year, but they are going out with a bang.

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Despite the pedigree of the teams involved, wasn’t a very big crowd for the initial matchup between USC and Ohio State. Very little of the lower bowl was full of anyone besides family and friends of those participating. As it got closer to the start of the men’s game which followed, Oregon vs. Georgia, more people filtered into the arena. Those who were there were blown away by the feats of the freshman phenom Juju Watkins.

Also present was one of the most well-known fans at the game: Jacy Sheldon’s younger sister Emmy. She went to all of the Buckeyes games last season, including their trip to Seattle for Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. With Sheldon returning, it seems we will see Emmy at games for at least one more year.

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One of the biggest groups of supporters was there for redshirt freshman Aaliyah Gayles. Gayles, who is a native of the Las Vegas area, was shot at a party before her freshman year of college at USC. She had to redshirt last year as rehabbed from her injuries. She went out with her team and warmed up for the game, getting out on the floor for the first time in a USC jersey. In fact, at the half, two people who wearing Gayles shirts got engaged. It was an overall emotional time for Gayles and her family.

“I know sounds crazy, but when I went to see her and she was in the hospital, it was very hard obviously to see her that way,” Lindsay Gottlieb said of Gayles. “But there was still a light in her eyes and still a humor…And I had no idea what that was going to be for her basketball career. But I’ve never had so much belief like in a human being’s ability to get through something because of who she is. From a basketball standpoint. I mean, look, she’s not quite there yet, but she’s getting there…just seeing her out on the court is really cool as well. But all the work she does. She spent a ton of time in rehab and physical therapy and on the court. Her presence every day is so positive that you have a belief because of how she carries herself.”

The second game had a much livelier atmosphere than the first. There were a lot of fans there for both teams but especially LSU. There was a sea of purple in the audience to start the game and anytime LSU did something positive they were loud. They started off strong as the Tigers did but lost momentum as LSU struggled. They tried their best to get the Tigers back in the game, but it wasn’t possible. Not to be outdone, the Colorado fans were also loud and very involved in the game. Late in the game, a chant of ‘Let’s go Buffs’ broke out in the crowd. There was even one Colorado fan chirp at the LSU fans throughout the game.

Not only were there a lot of fans, but there were also a couple big name fans as well. Shaquille O’Neal was at the game sitting courtside and he even went into the Colorado locker room after the game to congratulate the Buffs on their big win. There were also some faces from the front offices of the Aces, Sparks and Wings in the crowd as well.

“I thought the crowd support was incredible,” Payne said. “You know, behind our bench, we had a lot of CU supporters. We had fans and donors and family members and staff. A lot of people came down to support us during this game. And then the others that you’re speaking of, the Las Vegas community, I think showed out. I think they like Pac 12 basketball, our tournament has been here and I think this community really supports women’s basketball.”

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Juju Watkins shoots over two Ohio State defenders in USC’s upset win over the Buckeyes in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: John McGillen/USC Athletics

Game 1: #21 USC defeats #7 Ohio State, 83-74

The Buckeyes have high expectations this season, but it wasn’t a good start for them Monday. The entire second quarter, they didn’t look locked in mentally or physically and it cost them the game. The Buckeyes are known for having a stout press and forcing teams into a lot of turnovers. But their press was their downfall in the second quarter as they seemed to be a step slow in rotations and gave up a lot of layups and uncontested shots to USC on the backend.

They will need to have the buy-in factor from their defense, specifically their press, throughout the season if they want to compete at the high level. Coach Kevin McGuff said that you have to be all in if you want to be a pressing team and for stretches of the game, the Buckeyes were only half in.

“Essentially, we played two good quarters today, and they played three,” said head coach Keving McGuff. “So that was ultimately a difference in the game. But, you know, just started the second quarter, our physical and mental energy was just really poor. We had bad turnovers, no energy on defense, and we didn’t really give ourselves much of a chance. Now we came out played really hard, I think in the second half. We had expended so much energy in that third quarter getting back in the game that we didn’t have enough to complete the comeback.”

Jacy Sheldon looked completely healthy on Monday, getting to the basket at will and knocking down a couple outside shots. Her foot injury seemed to be a thing of the past. With Taylor Mikesell gone, Sheldon showed that she is ready to rise to the challenge, showing this is her team and that she is ready to lead them to new heights. Taylor Thierry also stepped up, scoring 16 points, including 10 in the third quarter. She was doing a great job of getting to the basket and finishing or drawing contact and getting to the line. She brought good energy to the press and got a lot of deflections in it. She also led the Buckeyes with eight rebounds despite being 6’, which is something the Buckeyes need as they struggled to rebound during stretches of the game.

While Sheldon and Thierry had a good game, the other stars for the Buckeyes struggled. Codie McMahon scored just seven points on 3-11 shooting. The Big 10 Freshman of the Year couldn’t find any rhythm and was in and out of the game with foul trouble. USC made her life very difficult, showing multiple bodies at her and making driving lanes very small for her. A lot of players who breakout as freshman have a sophomore slump. McMahon has the talent to avoid that but will need to find other ways to impact the game offensively to make it easier for her to score. Duke transfer Celeste Taylor also struggled offensively, scoring just seven points on 1-for-8 shooting including 1-for-5 from downtown. She seemed to be settling for a lot of threes and looked like she was still finding her role within this Ohio State offense. She did have two steals but didn’t look completely comfortable in the Buckeye press until the third quarter. Both players will need to be better as the season progresses if Ohio State wants to be the team they expect to be.

Rayah Marshall grabs an offensive rebound in USC season opener against Ohio State at T-Mobile Arena. Photo Credit: John McGillen/USC Athletics

For USC, JuJu Watkins lived up to the #1 recruit in the country hype in her debut. She became the highest scoring USC freshman in her debut, outscoring Lisa Leslie by putting up 32 points on Monday afternoon. She was aggressive attacking the basket and showed her unique combination of size, skill and athleticism throughout the day. She wasn’t scared of the moment and it was clear USC’s gameplan was to get her in space and let her got to work. She was able to get to the rim consistently and knocked down one three as well. She also did a great job of not fouling out despite playing the entire fourth quarter with four fouls. Her basketball IQ is already incredibly high as she added five assists to her 32 points and five rebounds on top it all off. She put herself on the national map on day one of her career with a stunning performance.

“I have not seen a debut like this, but I can’t say I’m as surprised as maybe it might seem to people who haven’t seen her every single day,” said head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “I mean, I’ve tried not to overstate things in the media, just because we didn’t see anything today that we haven’t seen for 30 practices. It’s just on a bigger stage against the top 10 team, but she’s ridiculous right and get used to it. But what I love is that talk about weathering some adversity — she gets in foul trouble right or I can only imagine the pressure that’s on her but that’s what she does, right? She’s a really incredible basketball player but the grace and the way she carries it is really important.”

However, when Watkins picked up her third and fourth foul in the third, the Trojans struggled. They couldn’t handle the pressure from Ohio State and even when they were getting into the frontcourt to run their offense, they weren’t getting very good shots. They will need to figure out how to play without her when she is in foul trouble in the future.

Even though they blew the big lead, you saw a calm amongst all the players on the Trojans team, especially their three Ivy league transfers. The playing experience of all three showed up in a big way, especially McKenzie Forbes, who scored six points in a row early in the final period. As those players continue to figure out how to play together, they will be even more successful.

Defensively, the Trojans dominated on the glass and really dictated what kind of shots Ohio State took. USC last year was one of the best defensive teams in the country and they looked like it at times on Monday. However, they clearly showed they don’t need to get stops on every possession with the improved offensive players they have. They did a phenomenal job of showing multiple bodies towards Codie McMahon and making it difficult for her to get into the paint. Lastly, they limited OSU in transition, an area they score out of a lot with their press, as they only had nine fastbreak points. USC can improve on the defensive end but with the weapons they have this year, they won’t need to be almost perfect on that end.

Game 2: #21 Colorado defeats #1 LSU 92-78

Frida Formann comes off a screen in Colorado’s upset win over LSU at the Hall of Fame Series in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: Colorado Athletics.

LSU came into this year with a lot of expectations but also a lot of new faces. However, those new faces struggled mightily for LSU on Monday night. Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow combined to score just 20 points on 6-for-20 shooting from the field. Van Lith got off to a strong start but faded into the background for much of the game. Despite playing 37 minutes, Van Lith couldn’t get any footing. At Louisville, she didn’t have to play the point guard role a lot and was able to be more of a scoring guard. She will need to adjust to mixing in her scoring with some facilitating for this LSU team to help them be successful. She did have seven assists, but she will need to score more consistently to be effective.

Morrow, meanwhile, struggled to find her role in this LSU offense. Morrow made her money at DePaul around the basket. However, for this LSU team, that is where Angel Reese thrives, which led Morrow looking confused on how to play off of Reese. She had some good moments in the third quarter but she will need to figure how what her role is and how she can best help this team succeed, which is a job for both her and Kim Mulkey.

“I’m disappointed and surprised in some individual players that I thought would just be tougher and just have a little fight and leadership about them,” Mulkey said. “But I knew what we faced. I knew, when you have that many kids who play that many minutes together. We had our hands full, and we had two returning players from our team last year that started so we were kind of putting in some new kids. They have experience but not in this system. I thought that Colorado did exactly what I thought they would do. They shot the ball good from the three. I thought that they just were poised, polished. I thought they were hungry. Everything that I think I’ve just said about them, you saw today and so we will get back to work and dig a little deeper.”

Angel Reese really struggled with the physicality of Colorado. The Buffs put two bigger post players on her, having either Aaronette Vonleh or Charlotte Whittaker guard her throughout the game. Both were really jostling Reese around every time she caught the ball and constantly bringing doubles her way. She also only got a limited number of second chance points, an area she dominated last season. Reese was really good last year at handling opponents doubling her and playing physical but seemed to shy away from it on Monday night. She will need to adjust to not only playing with her new teammates but also being the focal point of every opponent’s game plan.

The Tigers did get some surprising performances Monday from Mikaylah Williams and Sa’Myah Smith. Williams, the number two recruit in the country, showed flashes of her ability on the perimeter, getting to the basket with authority. Smith, a sophomore who saw limited minutes her freshman year, came off the bench and gave the Tigers a great spark. She had good energy and was aggressive going after the ball. Both players were praised by Coach Mulkey for their fight during the game and could help add some depth for LSU, which could come in handy as the season progresses.

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Aaronette Vonleh tries to score over two LSU defenders in Colorado’s opening game of the season. Photo Credit: Colorado Athletics

Colorado came into this season wanting to prove more after taking their program to new heights last season. They are known as a team built on defense and for the most part they did a phenomenal job on that end. They made Angel Reese’s job very difficult, being very physical with her and bringing doubles pretty consistently. They also did a great job of understanding LSU’s strengths and weaknesses and making them play to those weaknesses.

This is who Colorado is, they don’t have the highest-rated players. So they win a lot on scheme and playing smart. They have done this since JR Payne took over and playing that way will be key to them having continued success this season.

The conductor of the Colorado train is always Jaylyn Sherrod. She was unstoppable in transition on Monday night with no one on LSU wanting to step in front of her in the open court. She got downhill off a ton of pick and roll and either scored it at the rim or dropped a dime to one of her post players, as she finished with six assists. She is the heartbeat of this Colorado team, and her leadership will help guide them forward throughout the season.

“I think for the most part we are a pretty physical team,” Colorado head coach JR Payne said. “We’re always the underdog. We don’t have a single five-star kid or McDonald’s All American. We’re built on toughness, we’re built on game plans and executing and things like that. So it wasn’t necessarily you know, Angel Reese in particular. We just wanted to play our style of basketball… We have so many incredible young women in our program. They are just absolutely awesome. So for me to have them on a national stage where people, I know how great they are, I want the world to know how great they are. They’re great teammates, they’re great students, they compete. Like I said, they’re totally fearless. I want the world to know and we did that today.”

Aaronette Vonleh had a great first season at Colorado last year, after transferring from Arizona, and seemed to pick up right where she left off on Monday. She did an excellent job of sealing out LSU defenders with her strength and finished multiple times through traffic between some taller Tiger players. She was also the recipient of multiple Sherrod assists on the pick and roll, as she did a great job screening and rolling for the speedy point guard. She also deserves a lot of credit for making Reese’s night very difficult. Her combination of size and finishing ability will be key as she becomes even more comfortable in this Colorado system as she progresses through her second season in Boulder.

Frida Formann has always been a sniper from outside but last year, she played her best basketball in Colorado’s biggest games. She had phenomenal games against Utah, Arizona and Iowa and once again on Monday against LSU she showed up in a big way, knocking down a career-high seven threes. She has been inconsistent at times in her career but if she can shoot at a high clip this year and play sound defense like she did Monday, she will make everything else easier for Colorado this season.

Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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