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Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Women’s Final Four Teams Survive Wild Tournament Amid Equality

BRIDGEPORT, Connecticut ( Associated Press) – There was a time, not so many years ago, when predicting the women’s NCAA tournament seemed relatively easy.

UConn or Tennessee or Baylor or maybe Stanford, depending on the year.

But this year is not such a year.

South Carolina (33-2) goes to the Final Four in Minneapolis as the favorite. But defending champions Stanford (32-3), Louisville (29-4) and UConn (29-5) have all been there before – actually many times – although each had to fight this season to get back to the top as parity in women’s basketball continues to rise.

“It does not mean that a team can not be dominant, does not mean that you can not have several teams that are dominant,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “It just means there are stories coming through our season that beg to be heard.”

Baylor and Iowa, no. 2, was eliminated ahead of the Sweet 16. Florida Gulf Coast, a 12-seeded, upset fifth-seeded Virginia Tech in the opening round. Creighton, a 10-seeded, advanced to a regional final.

Since Breanna Stewart led UConn to her fourth consecutive national title as a senior in 2016, there have been four different women’s champions and there has even been discussion this season as to whether the Huskies ’dynasty took a step back while others overtook. The last two title matches were each decided by a single point.

“Our game is growing,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, whose team is in its fourth Final Four. “It’s just not one school where everyone goes, one program where everyone goes. Now branch players. Other universities like ours invest in women’s basketball. I think as it continues across the country, you are going to see more and more programs develop and continue to get better. That’s really what this is about. ”

The early rounds once again had their share of respite. There have been 12 matches decided with 30 or more points in this tournament, compared to just four on the men’s side.

But, there were plenty of upsets and draws, including Monday’s classic that put the No. 2 seeded UConn, the top-ranked North Carolina State in double overtime. It was the first time that a match late in the tournament had multiple periods of extra time.

“It was just an amazing basketball game and it was a great showcase for our sport,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

The men’s tournament was also somewhat of a thriller. Saint Peter’s caught everyone’s attention as the first 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight, sparking a discussion of growing parity. even if four juggernaut programs reached the semifinals.

“The way this tournament went, too, is amazing that it happened,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said on Tuesday, noting that the veteran players were piled up in some of the tournament teams. “This is the oldest that university basketball has ever been. And as a result, it will be harder to win. ”

On the women’s side, there have been 23 matches in the tournament so far decided by single figures, 13 with five points or less. Six of those matches involved the Final Four teams.

“I know we have three of the four that one player has played in the last four, but up to that point, how many great games have we had?” Waltz said. “How many upsets have we had? That’s what makes our game so much better and so much more exciting. ”

Fans noticed. Twitter and other social media sites exploded during the UConn-NC State competition Monday, with numerous professional athletes among those who send out messages about the game and the quality of women’s basketball in general.

“I think people are really hungry for great women’s basketball,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “I think the matches were so exciting. The coverage, the crowd was great. (The Final Four) is really going to be a great opportunity, a great platform for the women in our team and the game itself to be on display. ”

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Associated Press sports writers Eric Olsen and Aaron Beard contributed to this report.

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More Associated Press coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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