Women's Sweet 16 features new format and historic field
By DOUG FEINBERG
The Sweet 16 features a new format and a bit of history when it begins later this week.
The NCAA changed its setup for the women's tournament this season, trimming the traditional four regional sites to two. Seattle and Greenville - a city of 71,000 in South Carolina about halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina - will each host eight teams before sending the winners on to Dallas for the Final Four.
It is also just the second time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994 that two of the No. 1 seeds didn't reach the regional semifinals after Mississippi and Miami knocked out Stanford and Indiana, respectively. It also happened in 1998.
The other top seeds - South Carolina and Virginia Tech - advanced. The Gamecocks, led by star Aliyah Boston, are four wins from completing their own historic journey and back-to-back national championships. They are seeking just the 10th undefeated season ever in women's basketball, and the next steps for coach Dawn Staley's team are just a 90-minute trip from campus.
There are a lot of teams that have ended long Sweet 16 droughts, like the Hokies, Hurricanes, Colorado and Villanova. UConn, on the other hand, will be playing in its 29th consecutive regional semifinal.
Despite the parity that took place during the regular season and the exit of those two No. 1 seeds, it is the second time in the past six years that no double-digit seed reached the round of 16. It's also the first time since the Big 12 was formed in 1996 that no teams from the conference reached the second weekend.
There’s plenty of star power across the field with Angel Reese, Maddy Siegrist, Caitlin Clark and Elizabeth Kitley joining Boston in the regional semifinals.
The Gamecocks are the heavy favorite to come out of this region and, for that matter, to win another title. The regional semifinal opponent is No. 4 seed UCLA. The Bruins gave the Gamecocks a competitive game back in November, leading at halftime by four before losing by nine.
No. 2 seed Maryland will play No. 3 seed Notre Dame in the other semifinal. The Terrapins, led by Diamond Miller, used a strong second half to get by Arizona in the second round. The Fighting Irish overcame season-ending injuries to Olivia Miles and Dara Mabrey to get to the Sweet 16. Notre Dame got a strong effort from post Lauren Ebo, who set a school NCAA tourney record with 18 rebounds in a win over Mississippi State.
With Indiana losing, the bracket is more open, with Villanova and Siegrist playing the Hurricanes in one of the semifinals. Siegrist, who leads the nation in scoring, has the Wildcats back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. Miami's drought was even longer, not making it this far since 1992.
The other semifinal in the region pits two of the most talented forwards in the country against each other: LSU's Angel Reese and Utah's Alissa Pili. Reese helped the Tigers reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014. The “Bayou Barbie” had 25 points, an eye-popping 24 rebounds and six blocks in the third-seeded Tigers' rout of Michigan. Second-seeded Utah is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006 after edging Princeton in the second round.
Second-seeded UConn, which has dealt with injuries all season, will face third-seeded Ohio State in one semifinal. The Buckeyes needed a shot in the final few seconds by Jacy Sheldon to advance this far for the fourth straight season.
Top seed Virginia Tech is the newcomer here, making its first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 1999 after two impressive home wins in the first two rounds. Kitley and Co. head across the country for a rematch against Tennessee. The two teams played Dec. 4 and the Hokies came away with a three-point win. The Lady Vols were missing Rickea Jackson for that game and it was the final one that Tamari Key played in before being sidelined for the season with blood clots.
Tennessee has run through the first two rounds, becoming just the fourth team to win each of its first two games by 45 points or more. UConn did it the other three times, according to ESPN.
Ole Miss crashed the party with its upset of Stanford and is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007. Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin's defensive-minded squad will face a Louisville team that routed Texas on the Longhorns' home court. Cardinals star Hailey Van Lith grew up in Central Washington, a few hours from Seattle.
The other matchup will feature Clark and her logo-range shooting for Iowa against Colorado. Iowa edged Georgia in the second round, erasing the memory of last season's round of 32 defeat to Creighton. The Hawkeyes will face a Colorado team in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
Updated March 21, 2023