By The Associated Press
The March Madness has begun! Here’s what to know about the NCAA Women’s Tournament, including favorites and underdogs as well as key matches and how to watch:
The top four seeds in the tournament are South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia Tech and Stanford. Everyone is in a region, some harder than others (on paper).
We break them down for you:
SOUTH CAROLINA: The undefeated defending national champions are the No. 1 seed they opened up 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 clinched the top seed in the Greenville II area and start against hot Tennessee Tech, who have won eight straight. 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 dominate the Seattle Area 3. Elizabeth Kitley stepped things up in the streak as Virginia Tech won its last eight games. Virginia Tech may have to navigate Tennessee, the No. 4 seed, the Sweet 16 and the No. 2 seed UConn or the No. 3 seed Ohio State after that.
STANFORD: The committee has been looking at Stanford’s stability for much of the season giving it the top seed in Seattle Area 4. The Cardinal is led by Cameron Brink and Haley Jones, who combined to score over 28 points per game this season, although Brink missed Game 1 due to illness. Look for a potential high-powered Final Four battle against No. 2 seed Iowa, led by National Player of the Year contender Caitlin Clark.
GAMES TO WATCH
No. 5 seed Louisville (23-11) against No. 12 seed Drake (22-9), Saturday. The Cardinals were a Final Four team a season ago and begin their comeback journey as the No. 5 seed. They’ll open things up against Drake (22-9), who was seeded fourth in the conference tournament. the Missouri Valley, but defeated Belmont to win the league’s automatic bid. Louisville is led by Hailey Van Lith, who has averaged 19.2 points per game this season.
No. 4 seed Villanova (28-6) against No. 13 seed Cleveland State (30-4), Saturday. Villanova features one of the best players in the country in two-time Big East Player of the Year Maddy Siegrist. Cleveland State won the Horizon League and entered the NCAA Tournament 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 make it to the second round, they could face Washington State – the team that has country music superstar Shania Twain’s backing, thanks to social media.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The women’s tournament is packed with stars, including South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, AP Player of the Year last season, who is back in hopes of winning a second consecutive national title. She will have plenty of competition for the honor this year, including Iowa star Caitlin Clark.
There’s also Indiana’s top-seeded center Mackenzie Holmes, and the AP All-America team is also a good place to check out some of the best players in the game. The Cavinder twins, very popular gym rats on social media, made their first tournament after being transferred from Fresno State to Miami.
The court is also notable for the high number of international players, a growing trend in women’s basketball. Alas, some of the best programs also deal with key player injuries. Notre Dame lost star Olivia Miles for the remainder of the season, and Florida State lost its opener after losing two other players to injury.
The opening day of the tournament saw a host of outstanding performances.
Grace Stone hit her fifth 3-pointer of the game with 4.7 seconds left 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 second-seeded Utah against Gardner-Webb.
Then there was Myah Selland, who scored 29 points to lead No. 9-seeded South Dakota State to a 62-57 overtime win over Southern Cal.
Power forward like Angel Reese had 34 points and 15 rebounds as 3-seeded LSU beat Hawaii and fellow All-American Caitlin Clark had 26 points and 12 assists to help 2-seeded Iowa series to beat Southeast Louisiana.
Gun violence has claimed lives and disrupted college sports all season, affecting some of college basketball’s top programs. Coaches have been pushed into uncertain and intrusive roles trying to navigate the subject – as well as the fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
On a lighter note, the Big Ten are loaded and eager to get 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 each wrote diaries for AP as they began their NCAA tournament journeys.
HOW TO WATCH
The title game will air on a national network – ABC – for the first time since 1996, good news for gaming. ABC also plans to air at least half a dozen other games.
Alongside that, every match of the women’s tournament will be available on ESPN’s networks or stream, 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 several sites listing game times and other details, including the NCAA site.
Who will 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 heavy favorites to become the first repeat women’s tournament champion since UConn won the last of four in a row in 2016.
MARCH MADNESS CALENDAR
The Sunday selection set the brackets for the first four games and first- and second-round games through Monday at campuses across the country.
Sweet 16 weekend brings a twist this year to women’s teams: there will be two regional venues instead of four, with Greenville, South Carolina and Seattle each hosting eight teams.
Where is the Women’s Final Four? In Dallas, where the semi-finals will take place on March 31 and the championship game on April 2. The men’s Final Four happens to be a four-hour drive away in Houston on the 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