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Women's college basketball winners and losers: Nika Muhl's record, North Carolina's turnaround cap holiday tournaments

The March Madness excitement came early in Portland, where Connecticut and Iowa played an NCAA tournament-worthy matchup in the Phil Knight Legacy tournament championship game. Each program showed why it’s a favorite to make the Final Four come March. North Carolina and Iowa State followed that night in a fun Phil Knight Invitational championship.

Those games lead the weekend’s winners and losers, which unfortunately include more poor TV treatment and a concerning tournament setup that put player safety at risk.

Winner: Nika Muhl keeps entering UConn record books

The No. 3-ranked Huskies prevailed, 86-79, after falling behind No. 9 Iowa by 11 points midway through the third quarter. It was another tough win in the column for UConn (5-0), which has now defeated three Associated Press top-10 teams in a young season. And a stellar game for point guard Nika Mühl, stepping in for Paige Bueckers, who continues to enter elite company.

She dished out 13 assists to average 10.8 per game. Mühl is the only UConn player since 1999 to have three consecutive games of three assists or more, per ESPN Stats and Information. That span includes the careers of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi among other greats.

UConn’s Azzi Fudd got hers, but struggled in the first half (1-of-8) and missed all five 3-point attempts. Still, the Huskies trailed by only six at the half. The sophomore guard tore up the second half to finish with 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting and 4-of-10 from 3-point range.

Head coach Geno Auriemma said last week the post play would determine the Huskies’ season and it was forward Aaliyah Edwards (20 points, 14 rebounds, six assists) who played one of the best games of her career. She scored 14 of her 20 points in the first half. Aubrey Griffin (10 points, 5-of-6) and Caroline Ducharme, who was 3-of-6 from 3-point range off a short bench, played large roles.

Winner: Iowa’s defense

It was also a solid game for Iowa, which put together arguably one of its best games and used a zone defense to give the Huskies fits. It was also refreshing to see the Hawkeyes’ high-flying offense receive more than the offerings of the Law Firm of Clark and Czinano.

“Goddamn, you guys are hard to play against,” a hot mic caught UConn head coach Geno Auriemma telling Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder after the final buzzer.

Redshirt senior guard Kate Martin showed up for 20 points and a 6-of-6 performance from 3-point range. Her early 3s were the difference at the break. Martin came into the season a 27% shooter from 3 and averaged 5.5 points a game. McKenna Warnock (14) and Gabbie Marshall (10) were also in double digits.

Caitlin Clark cooled in the second half, but scored 25 points (9-of-24, 2-of-11 3FG). Monika Czinano had a problematically quiet eight points and missed shots she normally wouldn’t to finish 3-of-7 with seven rebounds. A little more focus on Czinano when UConn went small and a few more made 3s early in the contest by Clark could have shifted this one in a different direction.

Loser: Lack of postgame analysis for a great game with headline stars

The minutes after UConn locked up another resume-building win and accepted the championship trophy were highly disappointing.

The game was broadcast on ABC — a great thing for women’s basketball given the rankings and the stars on each side in Fudd and Clark. It tipped at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. ET in Portland, which is less-than-great) and was on the YouTube TV guide as “Phil Knight Legacy: Connecticut vs. Iowa” until 3 p.m. ET.

Instead of going back to the studio with Carolyn Peck and Andraya Carter breaking down the game, and specifically the second-quarter run by UConn and Fudd, the broadcast shifted immediately into the men's basketball studio. It was jarring and another instance of women being disrespected. It was only 2:47 p.m. ET and there was plenty of time to dissect the game for each team, spin around other games and highlight the ankle injury sustained by national player of the year Aliyah Boston.

The men’s studio could have come on as scheduled at 3 p.m. leading into the 3:30 p.m. tipoff — a lead-in, mind you, the women’s game did not have. They were given an infomercial and quick tip.

Again, it's easy to compare the women's and men's game during tournaments to see if they are being treated equitably. Clearly, there's work to be done. ESPN did stay with the women's side at the conclusion of the North Carolina-Iowa State game that night.

Loser: Tournament setup Indiana and Auburn played at on Friday in Vegas

The chatter on social media throughout Thanksgiving week felt familiar. It was another example of “Look at how poorly the women’s game is being treated,” of the crumbs given out to a sport with enormous growth potential. And it unfortunately went beyond the terrible camera angles and game quality of FloSports.

Indiana, a top-10 ranked team that's a favorite in the Big Ten, played in a ballroom setup at the Las Vegas Invitational that looked worse than a rural high school's JV game. It was a 10-team field that included Auburn, Memphis, Texas Tech and Missouri State. And issues went deeper than looks.

The Big Ten Network's Meghan McKeown detailed the major problems in a Twitter thread. Teams were not provided towels and instead advised to bring hand towels from their rooms. There was no signage that a tournament was happening (very common in women's sports) and the shot clock was constantly being unplugged. But it really boils down to two major issues.

Player and team safety should be the most important for any tournament host. There was reportedly no security on site, which was concerning given the location in Las Vegas and the week of mass shootings the U.S. experienced heading into the holiday. There were also no EMTs, an even more problematic situation that showed itself in the Auburn-Colorado State game.

When Auburn's Kharyssa Richardson fell hard on her back and appeared to hit her head, there was no immediate attention by medical professionals. It was a sharp contrast to what fans saw happen last week when UConn associate coach Chris Dailey appeared to faint. Thankfully, she was alert and responsive throughout the 40-minute wait for paramedics to arrive at the Mirage hotel ballroom. It was nothing major, but it could have been, and every fan, parent and school official should be outraged at the lack of medical attention waiting on site.

Then there’s the mind-numbingly irritating fact this took place in Las Vegas, a city with many options for basketball tournaments and where the reigning WNBA champions reside. Las Vegas is becoming a mecca for women’s basketball and anyone in the arena for the Aces’ games last season knows it’s rocking in there. There was an opportunity to make the invitational great given the infrastructure already in place. Organizers blew it.

Director Bryce McKey was not in town for the event, but site coordinator Ryan Polk apologized. It's like asking for forgiveness later rather than permission. A men's Las Vegas Holiday Classic was held Friday and Saturday at Orleans Arena, which seats 9,500. UC Irvine defeated New Mexico State for the title.

Winner: North Carolina’s second-half performance

No. 8 North Carolina dug out of a 17-point hole and did everything right in the final minute of a tie game to win the Phil Knight Invitational, 73-64, against No. 5 Iowa State. That's key to have early and keep building upon.

Destiny Adams pulled down a huge offensive rebound on an and-1 opportunity by Deja Kelly that broke the tie with 35 seconds left. Adams and Kennedy Todd-Williams combined to steal three consecutive inbounds by Iowa State in the final half-minute, resulting in free throws and an eventual win. Kelly credited the defensive intensity for turning the game around.

It was the third consecutive game the Tar Heels (6-0) trailed at half, coming right after they dug out against Oregon. On Sunday, they were down, 35-22, and bested their first-half output with 23 points in the third quarter. They outscored the Cyclones, 28-11, in the fourth by scoring the first 14 points of the frame.

It was a completely different offensive showing for the Tar Heels, who should also be considered early favorites for a deep March run and have the approach it takes to get there.

“They stayed super coachable [to] make the adjustments we need them to make [and have] a ton of trust in what we’re doing,” head coach Courtney Banghart said on the broadcast. “What a great win at a neutral site.”

Kelly, a junior guard on the Naismith watch list, couldn’t get her shot going in the first half and had five of her seven points from the free-throw line. She was 1-of-9, including three missed attempts from behind the arc. That changed in the second half when she scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including the game-tying 3-pointer early in the fourth.

“That’s just a killer mentality I have knowing that I work on those shots and I know they’re going to fall eventually,” Kelly said on the broadcast. “So as y’all saw, I didn’t stop taking them in the second half and they eventually fell. I think just having that killer mentality to never stop shooting.”

Todd-Williams’ offensive turnaround was even more impressive. The junior guard was 0-for-5 in the first half and a perfect 6-for-6 in the second, including three 3-pointers.

North Carolina will have plenty of tough opponents coming up in the ACC to further prepare for the NCAA tournament. That begins Dec. 29 with Florida State. First are meetings with Indiana (Thursday) and Michigan (Dec. 20).

“As I’ve told them in the locker room before the game, I said just be a hard team to beat,” Banghart said. “That’s what we’ve been the last couple years, just be a hard team to beat. And we were a hard team to beat tonight.”

The Tar Heels haven’t been to the Final Four since 2007.

What to watch this week

Tuesday

UCLA (7-0) at South Carolina (6-0), 7 p.m. ET, SECN — UCLA, led by 5-11 freshman guard Kiki Rice and 5-9 senior guard Charisma Osborne, will be a tough team in the Pac-12. South Carolina’s Boston is questionable with an ankle injury, but showed it can weather time without her when she was in foul trouble against No. 2 Stanford.

Wednesday

Ohio State (6-0) at Louisville (5-2), 7:30 p.m. ET, ACCN — Ohio State is averaging 91.8 ppg (third in the Division I), though its only major competition has been Tennessee. The Buckeyes turned 29 turnovers into 37 points.

Thursday

North Carolina (6-0) at Indiana (7-0), 6 p.m. ET, BTN — Indiana’s notable win was also Tennessee. Grace Berger, who injured her right knee last week, had 13 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two steals in that contest.

Maryland (6-2) at Notre Dame (6-0), 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 — Notre Dame point guard Olivia Miles is averaging 6.7 assists per game.

NC State (6-1) at Iowa (5-2), 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 — Teams are beginning to face the same opponents, an opportunity to compare resumes closer. Both NC State and Iowa have faced UConn with very different results.

Friday

Creighton (6-0, 1-0 Big East) at Villanova (6-1, 0-0) — Lauren Jensen (18.7 ppg) will lead Creighton against Maddy Siegrist (27.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and Villanova. In other Big East action, UConn (5-0, 0-0) hosts Providence (6-2, 0-0) at the same tip time.

Sunday — Jimmy V Women’s Classic

Virginia Tech (6-0) at Tennessee (4-4), 1 p.m. ET, ESPN2 — The Lady Vols could use a resume and confidence-boosting win. Virginia Tech ranks fifth defensively, allowing 48.2 ppg, and Elizabeth Kitley is averaging a double-double (19.7 ppg, 11.5 rpg) with 15 blocks in six contests.

UConn (5-0) at Notre Dame (6-0), 3 p.m. ET, ABC — UConn has dominated this rivalry by going 10-2 since their Final Four win in 2013. The Huskies won, 73-54, in Storrs last year, but Miles barely had her footing as the team’s point guard then.

AP Top 25 Poll (as of Nov. 28)

1. South Carolina (6-0)

2. Stanford (8-1)

3. UConn (5-0)

4. Ohio State (6-0)

5. Indiana (7-0)

6. North Carolina (6-0)

7. Notre Dame (6-0)

8. Iowa State (5-1)

9. Virginia Tech (6-0)

10. Iowa (5-2)

11. LSU (7-0)

12. NC State (6-1)

13. Creighton (6-0)

14. Arizona (6-0)

15. UCLA (7-0)

16. Utah (6-0)

17. Michigan (7-0)

18. Louisville (5-2)

19. Oregon (5-1)

20. Maryland (6-2)

21. Baylor (5-2)

22. Texas (3-3)

23. Gonzaga (5-1)

24. Marquette (6-1)

25. Villanova (6-1)