Why Ole Miss women's basketball will – and won't – advance to the March Madness Final Four
Ole Miss women's basketball has already achieved its goal and defied expectations.
The Rebels (25-8) needed just one win in the NCAA Tournament to build on last season's showing. Instead, they got two, setting up a Sweet 16 matchup against Louisville (25-11) on Friday night in Seattle (9 p.m. CT, ESPN).
So, how far can Yolett McPhee-McCuin's team go?
Here's a look at why the Rebels can – and can't – make a run to the Final Four.
Why Ole Miss women's basketball will make the Final Four
The Rebels have the best defense of any team in their region
On Friday, Ole Miss held one of college basketball's most efficient offenses in Gonzaga to season-lows in points (48), field-goal percentage (29.3) and 3-point percentage (5.9). On Sunday, Ole Miss limited top-seeded Stanford to its second-lowest scoring output in four seasons (49).
The Rebels aren't just an elite defense. They're an elite defense peaking at the right time.
There's always some degree of skepticism over whether a team built that way can get it done at this level. Everybody is grinding at this time of year, after all. Teams that win with extraordinary effort tend to lose that edge.
But Ole Miss has proven its defense plays in March, and that should be highly concerning to whoever the Rebels come up against.
Of the four teams remaining in the region, Ole Miss surrenders the fewest points per game at 56.3, which is good enough for 21st nationally. Under that defensive pressure and intensity, Gonzaga folded. A Stanford team coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances and two seasons removed from a national title folded, too.
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Ole Miss has shown it can win on the boards against bigger teams
The Rebels are going to need to win the rebounding battle in order to advance. Their offense is not efficient enough to outpace the quality of opposition it is up against if both sides are getting the same amount of attempts.
That said, even against teams that boast much more size than Ole Miss, McPhee-McCuin's team has established dominance on the boards. Stanford had much more size than the Rebels, led by outstanding 6-foot-4 forward Cameron Brink, and the Rebels outdid the Cardinal 20-13 on the offensive glass. Against Gonzaga, Ole Miss held a 24-16 advantage on the offensive glass.
Louisville is not a team that will bring elite, tall players to Seattle, so look for Ole Miss to continue to control the glass and get those extra shots it needs to win.
Why Ole Miss women's basketball won't make the Final Four
Even as Ole Miss collected one of the most memorable wins in program history over Stanford, the Rebels didn't have a particularly strong night offensively. They shot 29.7% from the field, bailing themselves out by connecting on 5 of 11 triples – one of their best nights of the season from beyond the arc.
This is an offense that feeds off its defense. Ole Miss needs to force turnovers and play in transition in order to win games. The Rebels need to get to the free-throw line, too, which they did successfully against the Cardinal.
An opponent that plays clean basketball and forces Ole Miss to operate in the halfcourt could give the Rebels a problem that not even their outstanding defense can solve.
If you've never heard of Caitlin Clark, she's pretty good at basketball, and her Hawkeyes could be waiting for the Rebels if they advance past Louisville.
Clark, a guard, is a three-time AP All-American and a two-time Big Ten player of the season. Through 34 games, Clark is averaging 26.8 points per contest ‒ good for third in the country. And she's managed it while shooting 47% from the field, dishing out 8.6 per game and grabbing 7.3 boards.
Louisville's star player shouldn't be overlooked, either. Hailey Van Lith shot over 50% in both of the Cardinals' NCAA Tournament wins so far, and posts 19.5 points per game.
Ole Miss tops Louisville, but loses to Iowa in the Elite Eight. Louisville is a team that the Rebels should be able to limit significantly, and I like their odds to advance on Friday. If Ole Miss gets Iowa on Sunday, though, it could mean trouble. Clark's unorthodox scoring ability can give even the most ferocious defensive structure fits.
David Eckert covers Ole Miss for the Clarion Ledger. Email him at email@example.com or reach him on Twitter @davideckert98.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Why Ole Miss women's basketball will – and won't – make the Final Four