Opening day takeaways – Is South Carolina even better and is there a new favorite in the ACC?

South Carolina got its NCAA title rings, and the Gamecocks and 16 other top 25 teams got their feet wet as the 2022-23 women’s basketball season opened Monday.

Only one top 25 team lost: No. 21 Creighton, the Cinderella of the 2022 women’s NCAA tournament, beat No. 23 South Dakota State.

From freshmen getting their first taste of the college game and transfers introducing themselves to new fans and fifth-year super seniors making their last go-rounds, it was a buzzy day. Expect the surprises and upsets to happen soon, because we’ve only just begun.

ESPN’s Alexa Philippou, Charlie Creme and M.A. Voepel look at some of the things that stood out most — and what they might mean for the rest of the season — on opening day.

Are the Gamecocks even better?

Defending national champion South Carolina lost one starter, Destanni Henderson, from last season but returned national player of the year Aliyah Boston. As good as the Gamecocks were last season at 35-2, could they be an improved team this season?

Sure, a 101-31 opening victory over East Tennessee State was nothing like a test. But it showed the Gamecocks veterans will have plenty of reinforcement. Consider freshmen like Ashlyn Watkins, a 6-foot-3 forward who had 11 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in her college debut. Her performance was part of 47 points South Carolina got from its bench.

Coach Dawn Staley talked afterward about how she felt every individual returning got better. Considering the Gamecocks had no obvious weakness last year, if there was a big question this season it was exactly how the point guard duties would be covered with Henderson gone. Monday’s game indicates it might be a shared chore, at least for a while, with redshirt freshman Raven Johnson leading the way with four assists. So opponents might not want to hear it, but yeah, this could be an even tougher South Carolina team to beat. — M.A. Voepel

New favorite in the ACC?

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Cayla King nails the trey vs. Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers

No. 13 Virginia Tech has some lofty expectations this season built mostly around Elizabeth Kitley, Ashley Owusu and Taylor Soule. The Hokies dominated Mount St. Mary’s 101-45, but the story was that it was Cayla King — not Kitley, Owusu or Soule — who led the way. King, a 6-0 senior, made nine 3-pointers and scored 33 points, both career highs. That kind of long-distance shooting can translate to any game, against any opponent.

One game might not be a big enough sample size, but King’s outburst could be an important sign: If Virginia Tech truly has a legitimate fourth scorer in King to play alongside Owusu and point guard Georgia Amoore in the backcourt, the Hokies might have to be considered the favorite in the ACC. — Charlie Creme

Monday’s most important win?

Defense was the most overlooked aspect to Creighton’s Elite Eight run in last year’s NCAA tournament. The Bluejays held Iowa and Iowa State, two of the top-scoring teams in the country, below 70 points last March, and put the clamps on South Dakota State in Monday’s 78-69 victory, the only game of opening day to pit ranked teams. The nation’s most accurate 3-point shooting team a season ago, South Dakota State made only 5-of-21 from deep against the swarming Bluejays. Junior Lauren Jensen was dominant down the stretch with seven of Creighton’s points in a decisive 9-0 run late in the fourth quarter. She scored 16 in the final 10 minutes and finished with 30.

The win will be worth an entire seed line in Tuesday’s Bracketology and gives Creighton a road win that the committee will love during its March deliberations. With games against South Dakota and Nebraska up next, the Bluejays now have the chance at the kind of start that could vault them into the top 15 in the rankings. — Creme

Van Lith, Louisville start fast

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Hailey Van Lith drills the jumper vs. Cincinnati Bearcats

Louisville Cardinals 87-68 win over Cincinnati was a little close for comfort at times — the Bearcats pulled within eight in the third despite trailing by as many as 23 — but junior Hailey Van Lith had the sort of big performance many expect of her as an upperclassman. Her 28 points — the second-highest mark of her career — led the Cardinals, and she did it fairly efficiently on 12-for-20 shooting (60%). Van Lith reached that clip just twice last year as a sophomore, and didn’t attempt that many shots either time (15, 16).

If the budding star can maintain that efficiency, plus sink shots beyond the arc (she was 2-for-7 on Monday), and Florida State Seminoles transfer Morgan Jones (14 points and 13 trips to the free throw line versus Cincinnati) continues to find her groove, Jeff Walz’s team could make the graduation of three starters a quickly forgotten matter. — Philippou

Two tales for the Terps

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Diamond Miller stretches through the paint for up-and-under bucket

The bad: Maryland senior guard Diamond Miller — who looked really good early on — went to the locker room in the second quarter of the Terps’ 88-51 victory over George Mason with an apparent knee injury and didn’t return to the floor due to “tenderness,” according to Washington Post reporter Kareem Copeland.

The good: Princeton transfer Abby Meyers can ball even as she adjusts to a new team, assuming the go-to scoring role for the No. 17 Terps following Miller’s injury by finishing with a team-high 19 points (and starting the game on 5-for 5-shooting from 3). Meyers’ shooting prowess is much-needed for Maryland after losing Katie Benzan, Owusu and Chloe Bibby.

If the rest of the pieces around them continue to settle in, Maryland could surprise some folks in the Big Ten despite a slew of departures behind Miller (assuming she’s OK) and Meyers. — Philippou

Is Soares what Cyclones have been missing?

Ashley Joens did Ashley Joens things (28 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) in Iowa State’s 87-54 win over Cleveland State, scoring 24 points in 18 first-half minutes. But what might be more integral to the Cyclones’ long-term development is how two-time NAIA player of the year Stephanie Soares fares. The 6-6 post earned the start Monday and made her presence known early with three blocks in the first two minutes of the game, though she only played six minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. She finished the game with a double-double (15 points, 14 rebounds), plus four blocks and four steals in 21 minutes.

If Soares can stay out of foul trouble, keep her conditioning going in the right direction and continue to make an impact against higher-quality posts, she provides an inside presence on both ends for Iowa State that it hasn’t had in recent years, one that could help the program reach heights not seen for over a decade. — Philippou

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