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

The field in the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament will be down to single digits by Saturday night. The round of 16 action on Saturday airs starting at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time on ESPN and will be played at the regional sites in Wichita, Kan., and Bridgeport, Conn.

The slate features established programs competing to maintain their high-achieving status quos, as well as a few upstarts fighting to prove that their early round wins weren’t flukes. Below are a few things to watch for in each of the day’s games.

All times are Eastern.

Michigan and South Dakota vie for a chance to make history.

Before last season, the No. 3-seeded Wolverines had never played in the round of 16. No. 10-seed South Dakota left “unprecedented” in the dust with its first-round win this year — the only N.C.A.A. tournament victory the school has ever had.

In their game on Saturday (6:30 p.m., ESPN2), Michigan and South Dakota will be competing to continue breaking new ground. This is the senior forward Naz Hillmon’s last chance to push the Wolverines into the round of 8. So far, she’s played as if she’s aiming to make the most of it: She’s averaged 25.5 points over the first two games of the tournament while drawing defenders to open up her teammates.

Now she’ll face the Coyotes, who already shut down another highly regarded W.N.B.A. prospect — NaLyssa Smith, No. 2-seeded Baylor’s star senior forward — in the second round. South Dakota’s fifth-year players Hannah Sjerven, Chloe Lamb and Liv Korngable lead the team’s so far insurmountable defense, which Michigan — not a uniquely prolific offensive team — will have to find an answer for. Either way, at the end of the game, one team will be going where it’s never gone before.

North Carolina State fights for redemption.

Last year, the Wolfpack made history by earning their program’s first-ever No. 1 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament. The team, which has accrued the third-most N.C.A.A. tournament appearances without winning a title in Division I, seemed to have a real shot at a national championship. Then, the unthinkable happened: N.C. State lost in the round of 16 for the third straight year.

North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane had just 4 points during the team’s second-round tournament win, but her team will need more from her in the round of 16.Credit…Ben Mckeown/Associated Press

This year, the top-seeded team’s path to the Final Four is even more challenging. The Wolfpack will face the No. 5 seed Notre Dame (11:30 a.m., ESPN), one of only three teams to beat them during the regular season. The Fighting Irish will be fresh from obliterating No. 4-seeded Oklahoma on the Sooners’ home court, 108-64, cracking the century mark for the first time in their program’s tournament history.

The Wolfpack will need Elissa Cunane, their 6-foot-5 senior center and leading scorer, to dominate around the basket. She scored just 4 points in N.C. State’s second-round matchup, but it made little difference because the Wolfpack’s experienced guards were hitting shots from behind the arc and put the game out of reach almost immediately. The Irish don’t have a great matchup for a player with Cunane’s size and skill, though, so the weight of the win will rest primarily on her shoulders.

Indiana tries to leverage its chemistry to take down a women’s basketball juggernaut.

Even in an off year — which this season has been for Connecticut, thanks to a slew of injuries and an uncharacteristic five regular-season losses — the Huskies are still a formidable opponent. They would be even if the N.C.A.A. selection committee hadn’t slotted the second-seeded team in the Bridgeport regional, where they will essentially be playing in front of a home crowd.

Nevertheless, the No. 3 Hoosiers will try to knock out Connecticut before the round of 8, which has not happened since 1993. When they play on Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN), it will be the first time the teams have met in the regular or postseason. They have very different strengths.

Connecticut’s centerpiece is the sophomore phenom Paige Bueckers, who is still regaining her footing after missing a chunk of the regular season with a leg injury, while Indiana will rely on the senior guard Grace Berger, who hit the tough layup that barely carried the team over No. 11 Princeton in the second round. Joining Berger in the starting lineup for the Hoosiers are two fifth-year guards, Ali Patberg and Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, who have provided veteran leadership all season and pushed the team to the Big Ten championship game.

What should make Hoosier fans optimistic is that all of Indiana’s current starters played in the 2021 tournament, when the team pulled off an upset against No. 1 N.C. State to earn their program’s first trip to the round of 8. This might be a bigger challenge, but this Indiana team is used to being underestimated.

Indiana guard Grace Berger came up clutch for the Hoosiers in the second round. In the round of 16, she gives her team a chance to take down Connecticut.Credit…Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The Hoosiers are also nearly unknown to Geno Auriemma, who has coached at Connecticut since 1985 but has never faced Indiana. On Friday in Bridgeport, though, he marveled over Indiana’s roster and allowed that he would not be surprised to see the Hoosiers win the tournament.

Dorka Juhasz, a UConn forward who tangled with Indiana when she played for Ohio State, said the Huskies would need to play far better than they did on Monday.

“I think they’re a very aggressive offensive team,” she said, “and I think they have a lot of good pieces on the guard spots as well as the post. They’re a pretty complete team.”

Louisville looks to set the tone for a deeper run.

Out of the past 12 tournaments, the Cardinals have been to the round of 16 in all but two of them. But No. 1-seeded Louisville is still looking for its first championship all these trips later, making it an easy team to overlook.

The Cardinals kept their streak going this year. But besides a win at home over a depleted Connecticut in the regular season, the Cardinals’ résumé just isn’t all that convincing. A big-time victory over a storied but vulnerable team like No. 4-seeded Tennessee, which they will face on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN2), would force the national audience to take notice.

In the second round, the Lady Volunteers barely escaped the No. 12 seed Belmont, which pushed Tennessee to the brink. Louisville, for its part, beat No. 9-seeded Gonzaga without much strain, but also without ever taking the game fully out of reach. The final score was 68-59.

Now, Louisville has a chance to make a statement. To do so, it will be relying on the sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith, who scored 21 points against Gonzaga. Tennessee has been trying to compensate for being without the injured Jordan Horston, its leading scorer and rebounder, but there is a chance she could be back on the court this weekend, adding another dimension to this complex matchup.

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