Eluding an Array of Upsets, Four Powers Remain
The women’s Final Four are crowded with top seeds and familiar faces. There are the reigning champions, No. 1 seed Stanford; the season-long favorites and top overall seed, South Carolina; an ascendant program with deep runs on its résumé but no title (yet) in No. 1 seed Louisville; and a Final Four fixture, No. 2 seed Connecticut.
Yet this N.C.A.A. tournament has hardly been predictable. The teams that have reached the national semifinals needed some close wins to get there, and plenty of others went home either far earlier or far later than their seeding suggested. In other words, there has been plenty of madness — which the N.C.A.A. allowed women’s teams to claim officially for the first time this year with their use of its signature “March Madness” branding — even if it’s not obvious from looking at the last four teams standing.
“I would have loved to have watched that game,” Paige Bueckers, the star UConn guard, said while speaking with reporters just after her Huskies claimed their 14th straight trip to the Final Four with a double-overtime win over No. 1-seeded North Carolina State on Monday. “It’s one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of,” UConn Coach Geno Auriemma said.
Their emphatic endorsements come with some baggage. The pressure to produce close games and unlikely victors — the hallmarks of what supposedly makes the college basketball postseason so entertaining — can be particularly intense in the women’s game, which has long been dogged by the misperception that there are not enough talented players for the teams beyond the very top title contenders.
As a result, there is an understandable tendency among those who work in and around women’s college basketball to cling to every upset and hotly contested matchup as evidence of the game’s continued growth and parity. Yet the women’s tournament has always had upsets; in 2016, for example, teams seeded second, fourth and seventh joined a top-seeded Connecticut in the Final Four (UConn wound up winning to complete an undefeated season). This year matched the record for wins by double-digit seeds in a tournament.
But the tournament hasn’t had to rewrite history books to be action-packed. UConn’s win over N.C. State, the first round of 8 contest to go into double overtime, has been the game of this year’s competition so far, but plenty of others have rewarded viewers with fight and surprise.
On the opening night, No. 14 seed Texas at Arlington played No. 3 seed Iowa State closely in its third-ever appearance in the bracket.
In spite of their star power, second-seeded Iowa and Baylor got knocked out in the second round by 10th-seeded Creighton and South Dakota teams that made it to the round of 16.
No. 12 seed Belmont came within 3 points of continuing its underdog run against powerhouse Tennessee, and in the process showed that its young squad would be a postseason threat for years to come.
The top two teams were also both tested in the tournament’s second weekend. It took Aliyah Boston’s best game of the season to lift South Carolina past No. 5 North Carolina, while No. 2 Texas pushed Stanford to the brink in their round of 8 game with its tireless defense.
“We found ourselves in a two-possession game in the fourth quarter, and we beared down and won the game,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said on Friday. “Of course, we don’t want it that close, but if it gets that close, find a way to dig deep and get a win.”
Compared with Connecticut’s grueling matchup against North Carolina State, Louisville — the lowest No. 1 seed — probably came away with the easiest wins of the weekend, leading Tennessee and Michigan almost all the way through its respective games.
The Cardinals, who will face South Carolina on Friday, are the Final Four team most approximating a dark horse, as they are the only team left that has never won a title. Louisville entered the tournament with just four losses, but the most recent was an ugly upset to Miami in its first game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Since then, though, sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith — a threat for tough layups and from behind the 3-point line — has scored at least 20 points in every game of the tournament. Her peer in the post, the Syracuse transfer Emily Engstler, has controlled the boards despite being just 6-foot-1 — smaller than most of the players she’s fighting with over the ball. The team’s defense has played excellently, but Louisville will need to summon even more energy to match that of the top overall seed.
South Carolina enters the semifinals having just blown out Creighton with the biggest margin of victory in the round of 8, 80-50. It was a needed confidence boost for the Gamecocks, who hadn’t been able to convert their dominant defense into much offense since their brutal first-round beat-down of 16th-seeded Howard.
Destanni Henderson, Brea Beal and Victaria Saxton all scored alongside Boston, allowing the Gamecocks to show some of their depth instead of relying so heavily on Boston, a national player of the year finalist. With renewed offense, South Carolina is looking for its second title and a chance to avenge its 1-point loss to Stanford in last year’s Final Four.
The Final Four in the Men’s and Women’s Tournaments
The national semifinals. March Madness is narrowing down to the top teams, and will culminate with the Final Four teams facing off in the women’s and men’s tournaments on April 1 and April 2, respectively. Here’s a closer look at the semifinals:
Men’s: Duke vs. North Carolina. The Duke Blue Devils, which beat Arkansas to clinch a spot in the Final Four in New Orleans, will play against their fiercest rival, North Carolina, after the Tar Heels made short work of underdog St. Peter’s.
Men’s: Villanova vs. Kansas. After trailing at halftime, the Kansas Jayhawks dominated the second half of their game against Miami to set up a matchup against the Villanova Wildcats, which outlasted lower seeded Houston.
Women’s: South Carolina vs. Louisville. The top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks proved too tough for Creighton and advanced to its fourth national semifinal under Coach Dawn Staley. They will face the Louisville Cardinals, which beat Michigan in their fourth straight regional final.
Women’s: Stanford vs. Connecticut. After injuries, losses to unranked teams and a second-round scare, the UConn Huskies advanced to their 14th straight Final Four, where they will face Stanford, the reigning champion. The Cardinal bested Texas to reach the national semifinals.
Bueckers, UConn’s resident highlight reel, seemed to return to form following her December leg injury in the second half of the Huskies’ grueling round of 8 matchup. She missed only one shot after halftime, scoring 23 of her 27 points in the second half and overtime. The Huskies may need her to perform at that level to contend with Stanford — a tall order considering her injury. UConn will also need consistency from her supporting cast, especially Christyn Williams, who had often closed the scoring gap with Bueckers out, and the 6-foot-5 forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
What Stanford has shown through this tournament is that not only are the Cardinal one of the most polished and experienced teams in the country, they are simply bigger than almost all of their opponents. Stanford has just one starter under 6 feet tall, and that’s Anna Wilson, one of Division I’s best defenders. If Coach Tara VanDerveer elects to sub Wilson out, she has a deep bench of tall players who can shoot that allows Stanford to intimidate even the best teams. As the Cardinal fight to become the first team to repeat as champions since Connecticut, which won four consecutive times from 2013 to 2016, it is only fitting that they have to go through the Huskies first — a game that will see two of the most legendary coaches in the women’s game going head to head for the first time since 2017.
The window for upsets and underdogs might have narrowed, but the competition in this last stage of the tournament will be fiercer for it.