By The Associated Press
March Madness has begun! Here is what to know about the women’s NCAA Tournament, including the favorites and underdogs as well as key games and how to watch:
The top four seeds in the tournament are South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia Tech and Stanford. Each is in a region, some tougher than others (on paper).
We break them down for you:
SOUTH CAROLINA: The undefeated defending national champions are the No. 1 overall seed they opened with an easy win over Norfolk State. The Greenville I Region includes two teams in No. 2 seed Maryland and No. 4 seed UCLA that lost to the Gamecocks earlier this season. South Carolina is loaded, with two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year Aliyah Boston and leading scorer Zia Cooke.
INDIANA: The Hoosiers landed the top seed in the Greenville II Region and start against red-hot Tennessee Tech, which has won eight games in a row. Mackenzie Holmes leads Indiana with 22.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Top challengers include No. 2 seed Utah, No. 3 seed LSU and No. 4 seed Villanova, which is led by scoring sensation Maddy Siegrist.
VIRGINIA TECH: The Hokies won their first ACC Tournament championship and top the Seattle 3 Region. Elizabeth Kitley has stepped things up down the stretch as Virginia Tech won its final eight games. Virginia Tech could have to navigate No. 4 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 and No. 2 seed UConn or No. 3 seed Ohio State after that.
STANFORD: The committee looked to Stanford’s steadiness for much of the season in giving it the top seed in the Seattle 4 Region. The Cardinal are led by Cameron Brink and Haley Jones, who have combined to score more than 28 points per game this season, though Brink missed the opener with an illness. Look for a potential high-wattage battle for the Final Four against No. 2 seed Iowa, led by national player of the year candidate Caitlin Clark.
GAMES TO WATCH
No. 5 seed Louisville (23-11) vs. No. 12 seed Drake (22-9), Saturday. The Cardinals were a Final Four team a season ago and start their journey back as a No. 5 seed. They’ll open things against Drake (22-9), which was seeded fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament yet defeated Belmont to take the league’s automatic bid. Louisville is led by Hailey Van Lith, who’s averaged 19.2 points a game this season.
No. 4 seed Villanova (28-6) vs. No. 13 seed Cleveland State (30-4), Saturday. Villanova features one of the country’s best players in Maddy Siegrist, a two-time Big East player of year. Cleveland State won the Horizon League and made the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2010. Villanova is in a stacked region with top seed Indiana, No. 2 seed Utah and No. 3 seed LSU in front of them. If the Wildcats get to the second round, they might face Washington State — the team that has the support of country music superstar Shania Twain, thanks to social media.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The women’s tournament field is filled with stars, including South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, last season’s AP player of the year who is back in hopes of winning a second straight national title. She will have plenty of competition for the honor this year, including sharp-shooting Iowa star Caitlin Clark.
There is also center Mackenzie Holmes of top-seeded Indiana and the AP All-America team is also a good place to check out some of the top players in the game. The Cavinder twins, gym rats who are wildly popular on social media, made their first tournament after transferring from Fresno State to Miami.
The field is also remarkable for the high number of international players, a growing trend in women’s basketball. Alas, some of the top programs are also dealing with injuries to key players. Notre Dame lost star Olivia Miles for the rest of the season and Florida State lost its opener after losing two more players to injuries.
The tournament’s opening day saw a host of standout performances.
Grace Stone nailed her fifth 3-pointer of the game with 4.7 seconds remaining to lift 10th-seeded Princeton to a 64-63 win over North Carolina State. Alissa Pili had a career-high 33 points, eight rebounds and a career-high eight assists to lead No. 2 seed Utah over Gardner-Webb.
Then there was Myah Selland, who scored 29 points to lead No. 9 seed South Dakota State to a 62-57 overtime win against Southern Cal.
Power forward like Angel Reese had 34 points and 15 rebounds as 3-seed LSU beat Hawaii and fellow All-American Caitlin Clark had 26 points and 12 assists to help 2-seed Iowa beat Southeastern Louisiana.
Gun violence has cost lives and disrupted college sports all season, touching some of the top programs in college basketball. Coaches have been thrust into uncertain and unwelcome roles in trying to navigate the topic — as well as the fallout from the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
On a lighter note, the Big Ten is loaded and eager to climb back into the title game. And if you think you know the women’s tournament, try this 25-question quiz from AP.
Want to hear from the athletes themselves? UCLA freshman Kiki Rice and injured UConn star Paige Bueckers have each written diaries for AP as they get started on their NCAA tourney journeys.
HOW TO WATCH
The title game will be on a national network — ABC — for the first time since 1996 in a stroke of good news for the game. ABC plans to air at least a half-dozen other games, too.
Beside that, every game of the women’s tournament will be available on ESPN’s networks or streaming, with fans encouraged to navigate to the “Watch” tab on ESPN’s sites. The NCAA will have a women’s basketball specific March Madness app by AT&T.
There are multiple sites listing game times and other details, including the NCAA site.
Who’s going to win the national championship? The betting favorites this week to reach the Final Four are (in order): South Carolina, Indiana, UConn, Stanford, LSU and Iowa, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The Gamecocks are a heavy favorite to become the first repeat champion in the women’s tournament since UConn won the last of four straight in 2016.
MARCH MADNESS CALENDAR
Selection Sunday set the brackets for First Four games and first- and second-round games through Monday at campuses across the country.
Sweet 16 weekend brings a twist this year for the women’s teams: There will be two regional sites instead of four, with Greenville, South Carolina, and Seattle each hosting eight teams.
Where is the women’s Final Four? In Dallas, where the semifinals are March 31 and the championship game is April 2. As it happens, the men’s Final Four is a four-hour drive down the road in Houston that same weekend.
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
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