Women’s NCAA Tournament power rankings: Notre Dame jumps in our list of Sweet 16 contenders


(Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.)

Four days, 48 games (well, technically 52 when including the First Four), and a weekend devoid of sleep and full of basketball. Now we’re down to the final two weekends of play. The Sweet 16 is set, and the matchups are exquisite.

So many varying and contrasting styles face one another. Some games present clashes of rosters with similar ethos and questions alike.

There’s a beautiful yet gut-wrenching duality of the NCAA Tournament, which is largely what makes it one of the most compelling phenomena in sports. The tournament is about testing mettle, seeing what a team can do on the fly with limited time in heightened scenarios in front of huge crowds. The stakes elevate and much of what is known and practiced can go out the window because of a random heater by a backup two guard from an unheard-of town in Minnesota.

Great teams with years of legacy and expectation can fall because of an off night. A team that struggled with injury and inconsistency all year might just hit the right groove at the right time, find confidence and ride that high to a Final Four.

Watching that team make a run and find its footing makes you grin ear to ear, but then you’re reminded: Every smile in March is attached to tears. The seconds wane on the scoreboard, but for one of these teams, it’s curtains. Not just on a basketball season, but also on a chapter of life. Hours of practice, months on the road, ceaseless occupation of thought. It’s a lot more than just a game in those moments when the game ends, and it always strikes me once we hit this time of year.

Headed into the second weekend of March Madness, how are teams stacking up?

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The Gamecocks put together the most devastating and dominating performance we’ve seen from a team in the tournament. South Carolina demolished UNC from start to finish, up 56-19 against the Tar Heels at halftime. Many were surprised the selection committee gave the top overall seed a potential second-round matchup against a regular-season opponent (UNC had lost by only 7 to South Carolina in November). But Dawn Staley’s squad handled the Tar Heels in way that reminded everyone why the Gamecocks are the heavy championship favorites. South Carolina’s bench scored 51 of its 88 points, a staggering number and testament to its depth.

No. 8 North Carolina

88-41

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Is there any better jersey matchup than Trojan gold versus the Kansas red alternates? I think not, and we were treated to an intriguing clash of styles as USC and Kansas played at Galen Center, the Trojans coming away with an 18-point victory. However, this was a much closer affair than that score indicates, Kansas inching within a few possessions midway through the third quarter. The balance and poise of the Trojans continues to impress, including backup center Clarice Akunwafo logging a her most minutes since Feb. 2 against Stanford and coming up big with 6 blocks. She also helped hold Jayhawks star Taiyanna Jackson to 10 points.

No. 16. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

87-55

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Vic Schaefer’s defense remains absolutely suffocating, as Alabama can attest. It’s been crucial in allowing the Longhorns to thrive despite nights with offensive struggles. They shot only 40 percent against the Crimson Tide, but held Alabama to just 33.9 percent shooting, while also dominating the offensive glass by corralling just shy of 50 percent of their own misses. Madison Booker has carried Texas, it always has a player or two who steps up offensively with her. In the second round, Aaliyah Moore was pivotal with 21 points and 10 rebounds. She embodies Texas’ ideals by being ferocious on the glass, constantly moving, playing with force and commanding the paint.

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In one of the most intense games of the yournament, Iowa went wire-to-wire with West Virginia. The Mountaineers’ guard play and smothering defense gave Iowa fits, slowing the pace, applying maximum pressure and forcing the Hawkeyes deep into the shot clock. However, Iowa’s ability to play an uncomfortable style and still come out with the win speaks volumes about its tournament potential. Gabbie Marshall was held scoreless, but she made crucial defensive plays late, including a key block that sealed the game. Sydney Affolter provided a key secondary offensive output, attacking the paint routinely in the second half. Hannah Stuelke finished with 4 blocks and came up big on the glass as Caitlin Clark (32 points) found her way to the line, getting to the rim late despite of defensive pressure. It wasn’t pretty, but much of advancing in the tourney is about finding ways to win outside your comfort zone.

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The Irish danced their way into the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, largely controlling Ole Miss from start to finish. Notre Dame’s zone defense has been incredibly locked in over the past month, and that’s paid off in the tournament as it held the Rebels to under 40 percent shooting. Hannah Hidalgo continues to shine brightly and grow in the biggest moments. Her poise and composure led the offense against a staunch defensive opponent. Maddy Westbeld had a bounceback game, leading the Irish with 20 points, while Sonia Citron finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Notre Dame’s rotation may be small, but they are in a zone right now.

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We witnessed the Cardinal play in perhaps the most exciting game of the season, an exhilarating overtime win over Iowa State to advance to the Sweet 16. Kiki Iriafen has dominated all season, but she put together the finest performance of her career against the Cyclones. She was excellent defensively, quieting freshman sensation Audi Crooks, who was coming off of a 40-point game. Offensively, Iriafen set a new career high with 41 points, which was essential as the Cardinal’s Cameron Brink struggled with foul trouble and eventually fouled out in regulation. Also note Cardinal freshman Nunu Agara, who played a sizable role down the stretch to help slow Emily Ryan’s perimeter game. Her 27 minutes against Iowa State were a career high, and it’ll be interesting to see how she factors in moving forward.

No. 15 Norfolk State

79-50

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Down 42-34 at halftime, the Bruins put on a defensive clinic to come from behind against Creighton. Some of the questions about UCLA’s ability to hit open shots remain, but this game displayed how versatile they can be. Lauren Betts dominated the paint while also switching out on the perimeter and smothering with her length as the Bruins went into a hard denial scheme, looking to prevent any off-ball actions or dribble penetration. Having a 6-foot-7 center who can be a factor across the floor is game-changing. No one from Creighton could keep Kiki Rice out of the paint, as she was UCLA’s primary mode of offense, finishing with 24 points and eight trips to the free-throw line. No player came up bigger than Charisma Osborne down the stretch, contributing on the glass and as a defensive playmaker with her shot not falling.

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The Beavers are so dangerous. They’re balanced, play at their own pace, move the ball at a high level and have so many options. Talia von Oelhoffen starred in Oregon State’s final game of the season at Gill Coliseum, finishing with 19 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 combined steals and blocks. She’s a clutch shotmaker and playmaker and the heartbeat of the offense, and she also routinely guards opponents’ best perimeter player. Every night, her assignment is different, but she provides in various ways. She’s a prime reason the Beavers made the second weekend, and have hopes to advance even further.

No. 14 Eastern Washington

73-51

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The Tigers trailed by 4 points at halftime to Middle Tennessee, but dominated the second half to cruise to a 27-point victory. LSU’s defense ratcheted up and owned the paint by continually attacked the rim and earning their way to the free-throw line. Flau’jae Johnson has taken a massive jump as a player since the middle of SEC competition. She’s a blur in transition, often kickstarting the break with her defensive dynamism. She knocks down open shots with regularity and is arguably LSU’s best playmaker when push comes to shove in the halfcourt. Johnson is the fulcrum of LSU’s title repeat hopes.

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In one of the most exciting games of the weekend, the Huskies took down Syracuse to secure their trip to the Sweet 16. Paige Bueckers was everywhere, finishing with 32 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 combined steals and blocks. She played out of position as she has much of the season and thrived against a bigger team. Buckers just makes magic happen. She scores in a phone booth with fluidity while imposing herself as a heady defender. Syracuse could not find anything defensively to make her uncomfortable. Ashlynn Shade now has 45 combined points in her first two tournament games while nailing 10 triples, and KK Arnold hit the biggest shot of her young career, a corner 3 to ice Syracuse’s hopes of a comeback..

No. 14 Jackson State

86-64

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The Wolfpack survived an onslaught from star Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson to make their way back to the Sweet 16, capped off by big plays down the stretch from Aziaha James and Saniya Rivers. Rivers came up huge to block Tess Darby’s 3-point shot off an inbounds play, sealing the game as she got to the free-throw line. James dazzled in the fourth quarter, creating essential offense as NC State went cold, knifing into the lane and hitting tough jumpers and floaters, while also dishing out 7 assists without turning the ball over. Wes Moore’s squad has a big challenge ahead against Stanford’s premier frontcourt.

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The Buffaloes played their best defensive half of the season when they took down Kansas State in Manhattan. They held the Wildcats to single digits in the third and fourth quarters. Colorado forced the Wildcats into 20 turnovers, including 17 steals, hawking passing lanes and denying the ball from star center Ayoka Lee. A balanced scoring attack with six players scoring 9 or more points kept Colorado ahead in a tight defensive battle, and Tameiya Sadler’s 10 points off the bench felt like more. Aaronette Vonleh’s near triple-double of 9 points, 8 rebounds and 7 steals was one of the best individual all around performances in the Albany 2 Region. Coach JR Payne and Co. will need that kind of performance again in a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 game with Iowa.

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The Hoosiers closed out a raucous game at Assembly Hall against Oklahoma with defense. They held the Sooners to their second-lowest point total since the start of February. The teams were a combined 7 of 41 from 3, and Oklahoma secured numerous second-chance points as the Sooners outrebounded Indiana on the offensive glass 15-8. However, Mackenzie Holmes owned the game as a two-way force. She scored 29 points (all in the paint) and helped to hold Sooners star Skylar Vann to an 8-of-23 showing. Holmes finished with 4 blocks, including an emphatic one late. Indiana faces a stiff test in top-seeded South Carolina.

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Gonzaga fired on all cylinders to take down Utah, earning its first trip to the Sweet 16 since the 2015 season, Lisa Fortier’s first as head coach in Spokane. The Bulldogs shot 54.5 percent from 3-point range, won the battle on the glass and got off to a hot start early to propel them despite of a phenomenal offensive showing from Utah’s Alissa Pili. Gonzaga’s defense, however, was what stood out as the Bulldogs fully locked into denying anyone but Pili the opportunity to score cleanly. Yvonne Ejim, the Big West Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, was key in settling the Bulldogs late when Utah pulled close. They’ll need her more than ever against Texas.

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The Bears won one of the most compelling tournament game so far, taking down Virginia Tech at Cassell in the second round, sending Baylor to its first Sweet 16 under Nicki Collen’s direction. Point guard Jada Walker played arguably the best game of her career, finishing with 28 points, including a game-sealing basket and a half-court heave that ended up being the difference. She guarded Georgia Amoore at a high level, and despite early foul trouble, the Hokies struggled to stop Walker from getting to her left hand. Baylor’s defense and versatility against USC will be must-see TV.

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Kara Lawson’s team engineered one of the most improbable comebacks of the season, and one of the bigger upsets of the tournament by beating No. 2 seed Ohio State in Columbus. All-ACC guard, Reigan Richardson, is playing some of the best basketball of her career. She’s on one of the brightest runs in the tournament, scoring 25 points against Richmond and then 28 against OSU the following round to tie her career high. The Buckeyes did not have an answer for Richardson’s mid-range game, nor could they counteract Duke’s aggressive defense on the other end. The Blue Devils held Ohio State to 27 points in the final 20 minutes of play. UConn is in for a grind against one of the best defensive teams in the field.

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(Photo of KK Bransford, Hannah Hidalgo and Sonia Citron: Lance King / Getty Images)





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