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N.C.A.A. Women’s Tournament: What to Watch as the Round of 16 Begins

The Sweet 16 is back in its usual form at the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament, after the 2020 tournament was canceled and last year’s event was based around a single city because of the pandemic.

The women’s regionals are in Greensboro, N.C.; Bridgeport, Conn.; Wichita, Kan.; and Spokane, Wash., with round-of-16 games on Friday and Saturday and round-of-8 games on Sunday and Monday.

Here’s what to watch entering Friday’s games.

All times are Eastern.

Creighton and South Dakota, the two 10th-seeded teams making their first trips to the round of 16, are not alike beyond their bracket-breaking successes. Creighton is young, with a sharp offense, while South Dakota’s suffocating defense hinges on fifth-year players who have worked together seamlessly.

One similarity: Most of the tournament teams don’t know them. Besides competing against each other (because of their proximity, being separated by only a two-hour drive), Creighton and South Dakota have each played only one remaining tournament team: Creighton lost twice to Connecticut in Big East Conference play; South Dakota lost to South Carolina in November.

They are wild cards in a sea of familiar faces. So far, that has made South Dakota dangerous. The Coyotes have not trailed in their tournament wins over Mississippi and Baylor, a feat that suggests they were underseeded.

So when Creighton faces third-seeded Iowa State (Friday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2) in Greensboro and South Dakota faces Michigan (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2) in Wichita, they will try to remain unsolved mysteries.

All four No. 1 seeds made it to the round of 16, but some made it more easily than others.

Stanford and North Carolina State obliterated their opponents. When Kansas played Stanford close in the first half of their second-round game, the Cardinal compensated with an offensive explosion and won by 26. That was after Stanford’s 41-point win over Montana State in the first round. North Carolina State also won by large margins in its first two games, allowing its bench to get in on the action.

Those teams will starting facing more pressure. Stanford will play fourth-seeded Maryland (Friday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN), whose offense has been electric. Stanford beat Maryland in November.

North Carolina State will play fifth-seeded Notre Dame (Saturday, 11:30 a.m., ESPN), which was responsible for one of the Wolfpack’s three losses. That loss, 69-66, on Feb. 1 in South Bend, Ind., was North Carolina State’s sole defeat in Atlantic Coast Conference play, a testament to the Wolfpack’s dominance and to the Fighting Irish’s potential to create chaos.

Two teams that sprinted out of the tournament’s gates staggered in the second round.

Second-seeded Connecticut, back in the Big East, was challenged by the No. 7 seed Central Florida, which it had regularly throttled when both teams were in the American Athletic Conference. UConn won, 52-47, but the score showed how frustrating the Knights’ defense proved to be. The margin of victory was the smallest for a Huskies second-round game since 1999, history that they would prefer not to make.

South Carolina looked sluggish offensively in its 49-33 win against eighth-seeded Miami. When the national title favorite scores fewer than 50 points in an early-round game, eyebrows will rise.

In the Greensboro regional, the Gamecocks will face fifth-seeded North Carolina (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN), whose stellar defensive performance sent fourth-seeded Arizona packing on its home court. South Carolina has been great defensively, but it has not faced an offense as shifty as the Tar Heels’ or a player as productive as Deja Kelly, a sophomore who averages 16.3 points per game.

To get back on track, the Huskies have the unenviable assignment of competing against a scrappy, veteran Indiana team (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN) that is undoubtedly studying film of the Central Florida game. UConn’s advantage will be in the seats: playing in Bridgeport, the Huskies can expect a friendly, fervent crowd.

“One of the first things we say, before the game even starts, is to punch first,” the Texas freshman Rori Harmon said. “When you punch first, the game is in your favor.”

The No. 2-seeded Longhorns enter their matchup with No. 6-seeded Ohio State as the favorites (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN2), but they’ve clearly retained some of the underdog mentality that fueled last year’s round-of-16 victory over second-seeded Maryland. This year, though, they’re hoping to reach the Final Four.

“We both have similar teams, and we have certain players we don’t want to bring off the floor,” Texas Coach Vic Schaefer said about Ohio State. “So it’s probably going to be a game of attrition a little bit.” The Buckeyes will be counting on guards Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell to facilitate scoring, while Schaefer and the Longhorns will look to post players like Lauren Ebo and Aaliyah Moore to take high-percentage shots.

The Buckeyes have been something of an enigma, barely escaping their first-round game against No. 11-seeded Missouri State, then dispatching third-seeded Louisiana State, 79-64, in Baton Rouge behind 23 points from Sheldon and 18 from Mikesell.

To the Buckeyes, though, the win wasn’t a surprise. When asked about the upset victory, Ohio State guard Kateri Poole said, “March is for everybody.”

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