By Natalie Weiner
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 resume but no title (yet) in No. 1 seed Louisville; and a Final Four fixture, No. 2 seed Connecticut.
Yet this NCAA 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 NCAA 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 consecutive 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 North Carolina State, the first round of 8 contest to go into double overtime, has been the game of this year’s competition, 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.
Despite 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 three 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 last 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 NCAA Tournament. Her peer in the post, 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 well, 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 beatdown 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 one-point loss to Stanford in last year’s Final Four.
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 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 2013-16, 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.