Comebacks, close calls, South Carolina blow outs: How the women's Sweet 16 was built

Some of the chalk from the first two days of the NCAA tournament has been erased. But not much.

Two No. 5 seeds and a No. 7 broke through to the Sweet 16. And the top four seeds advanced to the regional semifinals in two regions — Albany 1 and Portland 4.

The real story of the women’s NCAA tournament are the comebacks and close calls. LSU and Duke each had to overcome double-digit deficits in the second round. Iowa, UCLA, Indiana, Stanford, Colorado and Baylor all trailed in the second half before clinching a spot in the Sweet 16. UConn got a late scare from Syracuse.

Sure, the results have mostly followed the seeds. That doesn’t mean all of it was easy.

The only truly big upset of the second round — No. 7 Duke bouncing No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus — shook up the seeds a bit as we reseed the field ahead of the regional semifinals. The No. 1s are the same, but Iowa was close to falling off the top line with its squeaker at home against West Virginia.

The good news about few upsets in the first four days is that the next four game days could be historic. LSU vs. UCLA and Oregon State vs. Notre Dame, with Texas vs. Stanford and Iowa vs. the Tigers or the Bruins potentially on the horizon. A game with Paige Bueckers and JuJu Watkins on the same court would be a must-see.

Take in how the new bracket would look with some fine-tuning — and get ready to tip it off again Friday.


No. 1 seeds



South Carolina plays flawless basketball in rout of UNC

The Gamecocks are on to the Sweet 16 after dominating North Carolina in an 88-41 win.


South Carolina Gamecocks
Original seed: No. 1 overall (Region 1 in Albany)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 16-seed Presbyterian 91-39; defeated 8-seed North Carolina 88-41

Dawn Staley said after Sunday’s game against North Carolina that it was the Gamecocks’ best performance in a long time. Apart from its two victories over Kentucky, Sunday’s 47-point win is South Carolina’s largest margin of victory over a Power 5 opponent this season. It’s hard to imagine the Gamecocks playing any better than hanging that lopsided win on the Tar Heels after beating them by just seven early in the season. It’s also hard to imagine anyone beating the Gamecocks if they play at this level. For most of the season, the discussion of South Carolina’s best player was about Kamilla Cardoso and Te-Hina Paopao. The answer today might be MiLaysia Fulwiley. The freshman, who was also the MVP of the SEC tournament, racked up 20 points with four 3-pointers, 9 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks, and she has led South Carolina in scoring in three of its past four games.

Up next: vs. 4-seed Indiana (Friday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN)


Texas Longhorns
Original seed: No. 1 (Region 4 in Portland)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 16-seed Drexel 82-42; defeated 8-seed Alabama 65-54

Madison Booker’s transition from forward to point guard after Rori Harmon’s injury is remarkable enough. That she knows exactly what her team needs of her game to game is savvy and basketball IQ that few players have, let alone a freshman playing in her first NCAA tournament. She took just 11 shots and found teammates to the tune of 14 assists against Drexel. In the win over Alabama, she looked for her shot immediately and scored eight of her 21 points in the first quarter, including the Longhorns’ first two buckets in a game in which they never trailed.

Up next: 4-seed Gonzaga (Friday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN)


USC Trojans
Original seed: No. 1 (Region 3 in Portland)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 16-seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 87-55; defeated 8-seed Kansas 73-55

The last time USC was in the Sweet 16, JuJu Watkins wasn’t born yet. But she has certainly given rebirth to the program. Her 28 points led the way Sunday, but it was the five points late in the third quarter that mattered most. A game that USC had completely controlled was somehow slipping away. Nine straight points by Kansas cut the Trojan lead to one. A 3-pointer by Watkins, followed by two free throws, restored the cushion. Watkins then assisted on Kayla Padilla’s 3-pointer early in the fourth. The lead was back to 10 and USC was on its way the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994.

Up next: 5-seed Baylor (Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)



Iowa holds off West Virginia in a nail-biter to reach Sweet 16

Caitlin Clark’s record-breaking performance propels Iowa to victory in a hard-fought battle, setting the stage for a Sweet 16 matchup against Colorado.


Iowa Hawkeyes
Original seed: No. 1 (Region 2 in Albany)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated Holy Cross 91-65; defeated West Virginia 64-54

A sigh of relief was felt all over Iowa when the Hawkeyes survived West Virginia. Caitlin Clark plays on. Her 32 points didn’t come easily, as the Mountaineers defined the game’s style: physical and plodding. That Clark equaled her season low with just three assists attests to just how good West Virginia’s gameplan was. It wasn’t until a 12-2 run in the final two minutes — sparked by a Sydney Affolter 3-point play and cemented by six Clark free throws — that a win in Clark’s final game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena would be assured. Along the way, Clark passed Kelsey Plum one more time, setting the record for most points in a single season. Iowa’s next opponent, Colorado, represents another veteran, physical team — one the Hawkeyes beat in last year’s Sweet 16.

Up next: vs. 5-seed Colorado (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

No. 2 seeds


Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Original seed: No. 2 (Region 1 in Albany)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 15-seed Kent State 81-67; defeated 7-seed Ole Miss 71-56

With only six healthy players, the approach is simple for Notre Dame: Rely on your best players for production and stay out of foul trouble. So far, so good for the Irish, who have now won 10 consecutive games even with the slim roster. Hannah Hidalgo, Maddy Westbeld and Sonia Citron have scored 71% of Notre Dame’s points through two games, and no one has fouled out yet. In fact, Notre Dame only put Ole Miss on the free throw line 11 times in a game it dominated from start to finish. Led by Hidalgo and her nation-leading 4.6 steals per game, Notre Dame is a top-10 defense in points allowed per play and has gotten better in the postseason.

Up next: 3-seed Oregon State (Friday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)



Paige Bueckers’ 32-point game helps UConn to 30th straight Sweet 16

UConn star Paige Bueckers drops 32 points to go with 10 rebounds and 6 assists as the Huskies defeat Syracuse 72-64.


UConn Huskies
Original seed: No. 3 (Region 3 in Portland)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 14-seed Jackson State 86-64; defeated 6-seed Syracuse Orange 72-64

Is the shadow of Caitlin Clark so large that it somehow has rendered Paige Bueckers underrated? Bueckers, coming off an ACL injury that sidelined her for all of the 2022-23 season, is having a better season than she did as a freshman in 2020-21, when she was the consensus national player of the year (and the same year Clark began her career at Iowa). And Bueckers has been even better in two tournament games, averaging 30.0 points on 56.8% shooting. Throw 11.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals in there too. No player, except perhaps Clark, has contributed more to a pair of wins than Bueckers, who will be playing in her third Sweet 16 and the 30th straight for the Huskies.

Up next: vs. 7-seed Duke (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)


Stanford Cardinal
Original seed: No. 2 (Region 4 in Portland)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 15-seed Norfolk State 79-50; defeated 7-seed Iowa State 87-81 OT

In last year’s second round, Stanford lost at home and failed to score even 50 points. Sunday at Maples Pavilion, the Cardinal won a second-round game in which one of their players almost got to 50 by herself. With 41 points and 16 rebounds, Kiki Iriafen carried Stanford into the program’s 29th Sweet 16 with a win over Iowa State in what was an instant classic. All-American Cameron Brink was in foul trouble the entire game and fouled out in regulation with just eight points. That left things to Iriafen, who missed only two shots in the fourth quarter and overtime and had 17 points in that time. It marked the first 40-point game for Iriafen, but she had scored over 30 twice this season, including 36 in a close win over Oregon State in a game Brink missed. The Pac-12’s most improved player has 58 points through two games.

Up next: vs. 3-seed NC State (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)



Kiki Iriafen’s 41 leads Stanford past Iowa State in OT thriller

Stanford outlasts Iowa State in an overtime thriller to advance to the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA tournament.


UCLA Bruins
Original seed: No. 2 (Region 2 in Albany)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 15-seed California Baptist 84-55; defeated 7-seed Creighton Bluejays 67-63

Two things have become evident about the Bruins over the past month: They aren’t at the same level they were in November and December; and they are still good enough, particularly on defense, to get to the first Final Four in program history. Of course, the caveat exists that the path to Cleveland is blocked with LSU and then possibly Iowa. UCLA’s defense, which completely shut down a good shooting, veteran Creighton team, primarily got the Bruins through to a second consecutive Sweet 16. Having a healthy and consistently productive Lauren Betts, who had 20 points against the Bluejays, is the other key. At 6-foot-7, she’s UCLA’s differentiator. No team left in the tournament except South Carolina with Kamilla Cardoso has a player that size and potential impact.

Up next: 3-seed LSU (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ABC)

No. 3 seeds


LSU Tigers
Original seed: No. 3 (Region 2 in Albany)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 14-seed Rice 70-60; defeated 11-seed Middle Tennessee 83-56

Kim Mulkey described a sluggish effort in the first round against Rice as “bad” and “ugly.” She might have described the first half against Middle Tennessee the same way. Just over a minute into the second half, the Conference USA champs led 41-32. Then LSU’s talent took over in a flash and the outlook got much better for the Tigers. Ten straight points, five of which came from freshman Mikaylah Williams, gave LSU the lead — and it was all Tigers from that point. The defense of the national title was back on track. Flau’jae Johnson led the way with 21 points, and 76 of LSU’s 83 points came from four players: Johnson, Williams, Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow.

Up next: 2-seed UCLA (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ABC)


NC State Wolfpack
Original seed: No. 3 (Region 4 in Portland)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 14-seed Chattanooga 64-45; defeated 6-seed Tennessee 79-72

Perhaps it wasn’t the Wolfpack offense struggling the last few games as much as they just needed to get more from Saniya Rivers. Against the Lady Vols, they did. Rivers failed to hit double figures in any of NC State’s three ACC tournament games and, despite 16 points in the first round against Chattanooga, she still didn’t look like herself. But she did in tallying 20 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks against the Lady Vols. The Wolfpack’s 44.8 field goal percentage was its highest since Feb 18. That included 61% shooting in a first half in which NC State looked like a different team than it did in round one. The guard trio of Rivers, Aziaha James and Zoe Brooks combined for 58 points Monday, and the Wolfpack looked more like the team that had convincing wins over fellow Sweet 16 participants Colorado, UConn, Notre Dame and Duke earlier this season.

Up next: 2-seed Stanford (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)


Oregon State Beavers
Original seed: No. 3 (Region 1 in Albany)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 14-seed Eastern Washington 73-51; defeated 6-seed Nebraska 61-51

In March 2023, Talia von Oelhoffen was having surgery to repair her knee while her team missed the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Fast-forward 12 months and she scored 19 points and had eight assists to get the Beavers to their first Sweet 16 in five years. As an early qualifying freshman, von Oelhoffen joined Oregon State in January 2021 (during what should have been her second semester of her senior year of high school) and became the team’s fourth-leading scorer. She had a total of 10 points in NCAA tournament games against Florida State and South Carolina. Now she’s the elder stateswoman on an even-better team that relies heavily on two freshmen and two sophomores. One of the sophomores, Raegan Beers, is Scott Rueck’s best player, but von Oelhoffen, with her experience, might be his most important.

Up next: vs. 3-seed Notre Dame (Friday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)


Indiana Hoosiers
Original seed: No. 4 (Region 1 in Albany)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 13-seed Fairfield 89-56; defeated 5-seed Oklahoma 75-68

Indiana, one of the best shooting teams in the country, was pushed continually by Oklahoma and ultimately had to turn to defense. The Hoosiers are third in the country in 2-point field goal percentage but missed 18 layups. They are the leaders in 3-point percentage but missed 13-of-16 3s. This wasn’t supposed to be the formula to get Indiana to a third Sweet 16 in four years. It was simply the winning one. Mackenzie Holmes, who carried the Hoosiers on offense, disrupted two Sooners shots and made a late steal in the game-deciding 10-0 run. Holmes scored 29 points, 20 in the second half, in a game that was tied 10 times and had 21 lead changes.

Up next: vs. 1-seed South Carolina (Friday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN)

No. 4 seeds



Reigan Richardson fuels Duke comeback with 28 points

Reigan Richardson and Duke claw back from a double-digit deficit to upset Ohio State in the round of 32.


Gonzaga Bulldogs
Original seed: No. 4 (Region 4 in Portland)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 13-seed UC Irvine 75-56; defeated 5-seed Utah 77-66

The third-best 3-point shooting team in the country hadn’t looked like it lately. Gonzaga was just 12-for-43 from beyond the arc in its last two games. The slump ended against the Utes. The Zags equaled those 12 made 3s on just 22 attempts, shooting themselves into the programs first Sweet 16 since 2015. That was the first year under current head coach Lisa Fortier after she had taken over for Kelly Graves. Sisters Kayleigh Truong and Kaylynne Truong — playing for the last time in McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane — combined to hit seven 3-pointers, and post Yvonne Ejim had 17 points to extend her streak of games scoring in double figures to 39.

Up next: 1-seed Texas (Friday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN)


Duke Blue Devils
Original seed: No. 7 (Region 3 in Portland)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 10-seed Richmond 72-61; defeated 2-seed Ohio State 75-63

Middle Tennessee and Iowa State have the biggest comebacks in this NCAA tournament, but the Blue Devils are the true comeback kids. Down nine at the half, they steamrolled Richmond in the second half of their first-round meeting. Then Duke fell behind Ohio State by 16 in the second quarter Sunday only to outscore the Buckeyes 43-27 on their home floor in the second half to win going away. It was the second biggest upset of a tournament that has been marked by so much chalk. Sophomore Reigan Richardson was Duke’s leading scorer in the regular season — at 12.4 PPG. She has more than doubled that (26.5 PPG) on 21-for-36 shooting in two games. Richardson was a second-team All-ACC honoree, but she joins Iriafen as the breakout stars of the tournament.

Up next: 3-seed UConn


Baylor Bears
Original seed: No. 5 (Region 3 in Portland)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 12-seed Vanderbilt 80-63; defeated 4-seed Virginia Tech 75-72

Jada Walker picked an opportune night to have the game of her career. And she actually had the game of her career in one half. In two years at Kentucky and one at Baylor, Walker had never scored 26 points in a game, let alone in one half. On Sunday, those included a half-court 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer and Baylor’s final nine points. The junior point guard finished with 28 points and three assists. Without Walker’s clutch play, the Bears would not have survived a Hokies team playing without star Elizabeth Kitley to get to their first Sweet 16 under Nicki Collen.

Up next: 1-seed USC (Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)


Colorado Buffaloes
Original seed: No. 5 (Region 2 in Albany)
NCAA tournament results: Defeated 12-seed Drake 86-72; defeated Kansas State 63-50

How good was Colorado’s defense against Kansas State? The Buffaloes didn’t score for the first 6:18 of the fourth quarter of a tight game — and still won by double figures. They put the clamps on Wildcats star Ayoka Lee (10 points, nine shots) all game long and forced 22 turnovers, but it was the mere 15 points Colorado allowed in the second half that won the game. That got the Buffs to their second straight Sweet 16 after not having made it this far in the NCAA tournament in 20 years.

Up next: 1-seed Iowa (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

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