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Underdogs are thriving in the NCAA women’s tournament — and they might not be done yet

South Dakota shocked Baylor in the second round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament. (LM Otero/AP)
4 min

The first two rounds of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament were crowded with surprising outcomes. No. 11 seed Villanova shocked No. 6 BYU in the opening round. No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast topped a formidable ACC opponent in No. 5 Virginia Tech despite a 42-point outing from the Hokies’ all-American center, Elizabeth Kitley. No. 11 Princeton and No. 12 Belmont knocked out power conference teams, too, sending home No. 6 Kentucky and No. 5 Oregon.

Heading into the second weekend, this tournament already has the record for wins by double-digit seeds with eight, a mark set in 2018.

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Belmont came close to another upset, losing, 70-67, to No. 4 Tennessee in a game that it led until the closing seconds. Princeton narrowly missed another win, too, falling, 56-55, to No. 3 Indiana in a game that was tied in the final minute. And those higher seeds were playing at home because the women’s tournament doesn’t move to neutral sites until the second weekend.

The window for history has not closed. No. 10 seeds Creighton (Greensboro Region) and South Dakota (Wichita Region) are still dancing thanks to strong defensive efforts in the second round. South Dakota held No. 2 seed Baylor to its lowest point total of the season, by far, in a 61-47 stunner, and Creighton was physical with Iowa star Caitlin Clark, limiting the second-seeded Hawkeyes to their lowest effective field goal percentage of the season (39 percent) in a 64-62 upset.

Should either of those No. 10 seeds win one more game to advance to the Elite Eight, this tournament would set the record for wins by double-digit seeds. Here’s how they could do it.

Creighton again will face an opponent known for its scoring ability. Iowa State, the Greensboro Region’s No. 3 seed, boasts one of the best offenses in the country, but the Bluejays’ ability to score from all five positions should allow them to be the rare team that can keep pace on the offensive end.

However, Iowa State is the best three-point shooting team in the country, making nearly 39 percent of its attempts. Creighton has not excelled at guarding the three and probably will need the Cyclones to come out colder than usual to pull off another upset.

South Dakota matches up well with third-seeded Michigan, its next opponent. All-American forward Naz Hillmon led Michigan to its second-round win over Villanova, scoring 27 of her team’s 64 points and adding 11 rebounds and five steals. Villanova’s lack of size kept the Wildcats from truly threatening Michigan, but South Dakota fifth-year senior Hannah Sjerven, at 6-foot-2, won’t give up any size inside. Sjerven’s size, combined with the offensive firepower of guards Chloe Lamb and Liv Korngable, could be enough to lift the Coyotes to history.

South Dakota provided itself with a blueprint for beating Michigan in its win over Baylor. The Wolverines’ and Bears’ offenses both center on finding success inside, with Baylor relying on pro prospect NaLyssa Smith. But Smith had just 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting against South Dakota. If the Coyotes could limit Smith, a projected top-two WNBA draft pick, there’s no reason they can’t do the same to Hillmon, in turn frustrating Michigan’s offense.

If the Coyotes find success in the Sweet 16, No. 1 seed Louisville is likely to stand between them and a historic run to the Final Four. The Cardinals’ defense would pose a tough challenge, but South Dakota’s experienced starting lineup, which includes three fifth-year seniors taking advantage of the pandemic-related extra year of eligibility, could be enough to overcome it. If the Coyotes instead face a Jordan Horston-less Tennessee team — the star guard has been out with an elbow injury — the upstarts could be the more talented and experienced side, making a Final Four berth an even more realistic possibility.

In the NCAA women’s tournament, Madness reigns, but upsets are the exception

For Creighton, a Sweet 16 upset would put the Bluejays on a collision course with a buzz saw: No. 1 overall seed and title favorite South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ defense is likely to shut down Creighton’s offense and its hopes of advancing.

Our tournament simulations project South Dakota and Creighton with 38 percent and 34 percent chances to make the Elite Eight. On Selection Sunday, neither team had better than a 16 percent chance to make it this far, so both have exceeded expectations. Next up is a run at history.

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