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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

South Carolina tops NCAA women’s tournament field

By Kris Rhim

When the 68-team field for the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament was announced Sunday night, the least surprising selection was the No. 1 overall seed: South Carolina. The Gamecocks, who are also the reigning champion, will anchor a portion of the bracket that has its regional in nearby Greenville, South Carolina.

The 2023 tournament will formally open Wednesday when the first play-in games will be contested. The round of 64, which the top 16 seeds will host, starts Friday. Indiana, Virginia Tech and Stanford earned No. 1 seeds alongside South Carolina.

Led by forward Aliyah Boston, who could win her second consecutive national player of the year award, and fiery coach Dawn Staley, South Carolina (32-0) has been the best team in Division I all season. Last week, the Gamecocks capped off their first undefeated regular season in program history with a seventh Southeastern Conference Tournament title, and they will begin their NCAA Tournament run Friday against No. 16 seed Norfolk State.

But South Carolina hasn’t bulldozed through all its opponents to achieve its perfect record. There have been close calls against two teams it may see during the NCAA Tournament: No. 2 seed Connecticut and Stanford.

Earlier this season, Stanford was in position to beat South Carolina or send the game into a second overtime. Then, Stanford forward Kiki Iriafen called a timeout when her team was out of them. That resulted in a technical foul, and South Carolina made two free throws to effectively end the game. UConn successfully neutralized Boston in the first half of their February matchup by dropping their entire defense into the painted area. Boston erupted in the second half for 23 points, however, and South Carolina came away with the win.

“We don’t need a loss to make a push,” Staley said earlier this season. “Last year, did we need it? Maybe. I don’t know. But it happened. And it was a push that helped us.”

For much of the past two decades, UConn has dominated the sport, winning 10 titles since 2000 and, at one point, 111 straight games. But UConn hasn’t won a championship since 2016 and lost in a title game for the first time last year to South Carolina. UConn has lost three of its last four games against the Gamecocks.

After its loss to South Carolina this season, UConn coach Geno Auriemma criticized the officiating, saying guard Lou Lopez-Sénéchal had bruises, which Staley seemed to view as a slight.

“We’ve been called so many things, and I’m sick of it,” Staley said, adding: “We don’t denounce anybody’s play. They are always uplifting the game of women’s basketball, and when we were getting our heads beat in by UConn for all those years, I said nothing.”

As South Carolina trounced UConn in the title game last season 64-49, it appeared to be a clear changing of the guard. South Carolina seemed headed toward becoming college basketball’s next dynasty, and its performance so far this season has made that idea a reality.

“I don’t think winning two national championships or going to the Final Four back to back is considered a dynasty back in my age,” Staley said after last year’s title win. (South Carolina also won the title in the 2016-17 season.) “But Aliyah and social media, yeah, they think they doing something good.”

Staley added: “Look at the tradition of UConn and what they were able to do. They’re the standard. If it takes winning 11 national championships to be a dynasty, I’m probably going to fall short of that because I’m not going to be in the game long enough for us to win 11.”

The teams with the best chances of crashing South Carolina’s dynasty party include the mainstays in Stanford and UConn, but also other teams with dynamic stars, like No. 2 seed Iowa and Virginia Tech.

UConn comes into the tournament having won seven of its last eight games, including a comfortable win in the Big East Conference Tournament final over Villanova. But its play has fluctuated this season as it has dealt with several injuries. The issues began before the season with Paige Bueckers, the team’s best player, tearing a knee ligament in an August pickup game that sidelined her for the season. Ice Brady, a promising freshman, dislocated the patella in her right knee, in a practice before the season, which sidelined her the entire year.

The injuries continued. On Jan. 7, UConn had to postpone a game against DePaul because it had only six active players. Also, Auriemma missed four games this year with an illness.

The good news for UConn is that star sophomore guard Azzi Fudd, who has missed 22 total games this season because of knee injuries, is back in its lineup. Fudd was cleared to return just before the conference tournament and scored 11 points in the title game. UConn will face 15th-seeded Vermont on Saturday.

“So many things have happened on and off the court this past season,” Auriemma said. “Personally and team-wise, everything, to get to this point, you want to just close that book and start a new brand-new one.”

On the other hand, Stanford is stumbling into the tournament, having lost two of its last three games. Its last loss came in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament semifinals to UCLA. It was the first time Stanford had not made the Pac-12 title game since 2016.

Still, Stanford, which won the national title in 2021, has the experience and talent to be one of the hardest teams to eliminate from the tournament, but late-season inconsistency makes them seem more vulnerable than they have been in years past.

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