Double bubble trouble: Sisters stand out in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament
Ten pairs of sisters are competing in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, and one could cut down the nets
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues and grows. Paid subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
Some of my favorite parts of every NCAA Tournament are the emotional moments between family members that get caught on camera, such as legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt cutting down the net with her young son Tyler after winning a title in 1996 or then-Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer embracing daughter and then-player Blair after a second-round win in 2018.
Those moments can be harder to come by in 2021, as the NCAA curtailed family and fan attendance and placed strict limits on teams’ travel parties due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But at least one type of family connection is still flourishing in this year’s tournament: sisters who compete for the same team.
On March 21, ESPN’s Holly Rowe reported on air that 10 sets of sisters are playing in this year’s tournament. Here at The Next, we went straight to work, identifying all 10 pairs representing eight different schools. (Notably, there is an 11th pair if you count South Carolina’s Aliyah and Alexis Boston, though Alexis does not see game action as a team manager.)
Setting South Carolina’s special case aside for now, let’s take stock of how each of the sister acts have fared in the NCAA Tournament.
The Hull twins headline the list of sisters, playing for a national title favorite and No. 1 seed in Stanford. No other sisters play for teams that are top-four seeds, and just four of the 10 pairs of sisters play for teams that got top-eight seeds and were therefore expected to advance out of the first round. Four other pairs of sisters play for teams that got No. 12 seeds or worse, which makes it especially challenging for them to advance in the tournament.
One and done
Indeed, the teams with sisters on the court generally struggled to advance in the tournament, with just two pairs of sisters advancing past the first round in Stanford’s Hull twins and Iowa State’s Joens sisters. Gonzaga, the No. 5 seed that has two pairs of sisters in the Truongs and the Wirths, got upset by sisterless No. 12 seed Belmont, and none of the underdog teams that have sisters were able to spring their own upsets.
Even in losing efforts, many of the sisters had outstanding games on the big stage. Thirteen of 20 sisters started their first-round game, and 14 played at least 20 minutes. Perhaps the most impressive pair was Middle Tennessee State’s Anastasia and Aislynn Hayes: they combined to play a full 80 minutes against Tennessee and scored 26 and 15 points, respectively, in a game that was tied at half before the Lady Vols pulled away.
The game was the first NCAA Tournament experience for Aislynn, a sophomore, whereas Anastasia played in two as a freshman at Tennessee before transferring to MTSU. “Being there before is one thing, but doing it now with my teammates and my sister and everyone around me just makes it so much better,” Anastasia said before the matchup against her previous school. “… My own sister, her getting to experience this, I’m just so happy for her.”
The Hayes’ 41 points was the highest total of any of the sister pairings in the first round, but Bradley’s Lasha Petree nearly equaled it on her own. She scored 33 points in 34 minutes in a loss to No. 6 seed Texas—a team that stifled No. 3 seed UCLA defensively two nights later—while sister Mahri chipped in two points and three rebounds. And Iowa State’s Ashley Joens also had 33 points (and nine rebounds) in a win over Michigan State.
Meanwhile, Washington State’s Leger-Walker sisters were the only pair besides the Hayeses to play at least 70 minutes in the first round, and they combined for 21 of the Cougars’ 53 points in a four-point loss to South Florida. Krystal, a senior, and Charlisse, a freshman, have made a huge splash this season at Washington State—which improved its conference win percentage from 0.211 in 2019-20 to 0.476 this season—and in their native New Zealand.
“We’re trying to create a game that is a highly skill-based game, where our players can really emerge as good ball-handlers and shooters and passers,” New Zealand senior national team coach Guy Molloy told The Athletic earlier this season. “… And when you find good role models, such as the Leger-Walker girls … I think it’s pretty inspiring for young female athletes in the country.”
The round of 32
Iowa State’s Ashley Joens kept up her excellent play in the second round, scoring 32 points and adding 18 rebounds in a heartbreaking and dramatic overtime loss to Texas A&M. “The weight of this team is on her back every single night, and she just keeps playing,” Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly said of Ashley after the loss. “She’s amazing. Absolutely amazing.”
Sister Aubrey got her first points of the tournament in that game, giving the Joenses a combined 35 points in 45 minutes. Across the Cyclones’ two games, the Joenses had 68 total points, 27 rebounds, and four assists.
The Hull twins didn’t score as prolifically as the Joenses, combining for 19 points in the first round and 11 in the second round, but teammate Kiana Williams gushed about the Hulls on Friday and noted that they have upped their communication in the tournament. Head coach Tara VanDerveer added:
“I call them the engine of the train; they really get our team going. … They bring so much to our program and to our team. They also bring a sisterhood: they're really close, but they compete hard against each other. They set a great example in that respect.”
The Hulls helped Stanford advance to the Sweet Sixteen, winning its first two games by an average of 27 points. As the last team with sisters left standing, the Cardinal will face No. 5 seed Missouri State on Sunday and hope to carry the sororal torch all the way to a national championship. If they do, the Hulls will become the first sisters in Division I women’s basketball to win a national title as teammates in at least 15 years.
Overall NCAA Tournament impact and looking ahead
Through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, 10 games, or 21%, featured at least one pair of sisters. The 20 players are averaging 9.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 22.5 minutes per game—or, in other words, each pair of sisters is combining to average nearly 20 points per game.
Not to be outdone, Aliyah Boston is averaging nearly that many herself—19.5 points and 12.5 rebounds—in two double-digit wins for South Carolina and remains on track to potentially meet Stanford and the Hulls in the Final Four. It wouldn’t quite be an on-court sister matchup, with Alexis not in uniform, but the game could come down to some sisterly advice on either side. Lexie Hull said in 2017 that she and Lacie help each other recalibrate and lock in mentally, while Alexis Boston sometimes fills a quasi-coach role for her younger sister.
“[Aliyah and I] get in the gym together, work on what she didn’t do well in practice or thinks she did bad in a game,” Alexis told The Post and Courier earlier this year. “She beats up on herself when watching film, so when we get a chance to work together, she wants to work on everything. … Sometimes, I have to say, ‘It’s OK, you did good.’”
“You did good” might just be the takeaway about all of the sisters in the NCAA Tournament. Many of them were underdogs in the bracket, but nearly all of them have made an impact individually on the sport’s biggest stage. And collectively, they have left an undeniable stamp on the 2021 tournament.
Thank you to Kurtis Zimmerman and Sydney Olmstead for providing research support for this story.