PAT EATON-ROBB / AP Sports Writer
There was a time, not that many years ago, when predicting the women’s NCAA Tournament champion seemed relatively easy.
UConn or Tennessee or Baylor or maybe Stanford, depending on the year.
But this year is not a year like that.
South Carolina (33-2) goes to the Final Four in Minneapolis as the favorite. But defending champion Stanford (32-3), Louisville (29-4) and UConn (29-5) have all been there before — many times, actually — though each had to fight this season to get back to the top as parity in women’s basketball continues to surge.
“It doesn’t mean that a team can’t be dominant, doesn’t mean that you can’t have several teams that are dominant,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “It just means that there are stories that come along throughout our season that beg to be heard about.”
No. 2 seeds Baylor and Iowa were eliminated before the Sweet 16. Florida Gulf Coast, a 12-seed, upset fifth-seeded Virginia Tech in the opening round. Creighton, a 10-seed, made it to a regional final.
Since Breanna Stewart led UConn to its fourth straight national title as a senior in 2016 there have been four different women’s champions and there was even discussion this season whether the Huskies’ dynasty has taken a step back while others have caught up. The last two title games have each been decided by a single point.
“Our game is growing,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, whose team is in its fourth Final Four. “So it’s just not one school where everybody goes, one program where everybody goes. Now players are branching out. Other universities like ourselves are investing in women’s basketball. I think as that continues throughout the country, you’re going to see more and more programs evolve and continue to get better. That’s really what it’s all about.”
The early rounds again featured their share of blowouts. There have been 12 games decided by 30 or more points in this tournament, compared to just four on the men’s side.
But, there were plenty of upsets and close games, including Monday’s classic that saw No. 2 seed UConn outlast top-seed North Carolina State in double overtime. It was the first time a game that late in the tournament has had multiple periods of extra time.
“It was just an amazing basketball game and it was a great showcase for our sport,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
The men’s tournament has been something of a thriller, too. Saint Peter’s captured everyone’s attention as the first 15-seed to reach the Elite Eight, sparking a discussion of growing parity even as four juggernaut programs reached the semifinals.
“The way this tournament has gone, too, it’s amazing that that’s happened,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Tuesday, noting the veteran players stacked on some of the tourney teams. “It’s the oldest that college basketball has ever been. And so as a result of that, it’s going to be tougher to win.”
On the women’s side, there have been 23 games in the tournament so far decided by single digits, 13 by five points or fewer. Six of those games involved the Final Four teams.
“I know we’ve got three of the four one seeds are playing in the Final Four, but up to that point, how many great games have we had?” Walz said. “How many upsets have we had? That’s what’s making our game that much better and that much more exciting.”
Fans have noticed. Twitter and other social media sites exploded during the UConn-NC State game Monday, with numerous pro athletes among those sending out messages about the game and the quality of women’s basketball in general.
“I think people have been really starved for great women’s basketball,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I think that the games have been so exciting. The coverage, the crowds have been great. (The Final Four) is going to be really a great opportunity, a great platform for the women on our team and the game itself to be showcased.”
AP sports writers Eric Olsen and Aaron Beard contributed to this report.