Women’s N.C.A.A. Tournament: What to Watch as Final Four Is Determined

The last two teams for the women’s Final Four will be decided on Monday night in Bridgeport, Conn., and Wichita, Kan. The lineup includes the Connecticut Huskies, who have been to the past 13 national semifinals. The other three teams have much more to prove.

UConn will play North Carolina State in the first game, at 7 p.m. Eastern time, before Michigan faces Louisville. Both games are on ESPN. Here are things to look for as the women’s tournament field shrinks again.

This Wolfpack-Huskies rematch has been two decades in the making.

Raina Perez’s layup after a steal against Notre Dame on Saturday put North Carolina State up by 1 point late in the fourth quarter.Credit…Frank Franklin Ii/Associated Press

North Carolina State has spent 24 years trying to return the N.C.A.A. tournament’s round of 8, having lost in the round of 16 five times in the interim. When they were last in the round of 8, in 1998, the Wolfpack played … UConn.

Led then by Coach Kay Yow, fourth-seeded North Carolina State pulled off the upset and secured the program’s sole trip to the Final Four, dispatching a program on the verge of becoming a dynasty. The next season, Sue Bird and Swin Cash enrolled at UConn; 10 more titles and 13 straight Final Four appearances later, the Huskies are the face of women’s college basketball.

This year, the Wolfpack are a No. 1 seed. But given UConn’s history and the site of the game, Bridgeport, Conn., North Carolina State will enter as roughly a 4-point underdog. The second-seeded Huskies put on a show in their 75-58 victory over No. 3 Indiana on Saturday, with four starters scoring in double digits and the program’s star sophomore, Paige Bueckers, seeming to return to form after a knee injury earlier this season and after an injury scare in Saturday’s game. She had 15 points in 33 minutes.

North Carolina State struggled through much of its game on Saturday against fifth-seeded Notre Dame, which led deep into the fourth quarter. The veteran team proved unflappable, though, overcoming the gap by forcing enough late turnovers, including a game-sealing steal and layup by the fifth-year player Raina Perez.

To snap the Wolfpack’s Final Four drought, the senior center Elissa Cunane, a W.N.B.A. prospect, will have to use her 6-foot-5 frame and refined footwork to score against the Huskies’ talented post players, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards. Almost every North Carolina State guard regularly sinks 3-pointers, and they’ll need them to outlast a Connecticut offense that can score often and quickly.

The Wolfpack are tied for the third-most N.C.A.A. tournament appearances (26) without a championship (Georgia, which lost in the second round this year, is No. 1 with 34); if they don’t win this year, they will move into a tie for second place.

Michigan makes its first appearance in the round of 8.

Naz Hillmon has been one of the top players in the history of the Michigan women’s basketball program.Credit…Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

The ascendance of Michigan in the past four seasons, including its first round-of-16 appearance and its first ranking in The Associated Press poll’s top five, is largely attributable to the senior forward Naz Hillmon. She has rewritten the Michigan record books and, with the careful guidance of Coach Kim Barnes Arico as well as a talented supporting cast, she has led the program to places it has never been.

That journey now includes this game, Michigan’s round-of-8 debut, against a Louisville team that is playing with a chip on its shoulder in spite of its No. 1 seeding. Louisville was a comparatively unpopular pick to win it all among those filling out brackets. “We’re kind of like the Bad News Bears,” the sophomore point guard Hailey Van Lith said on Friday, adding that it seems to irritate people that Louisville is good.

The Cardinals enter their matchup against third-seeded Michigan with a distinct advantage, having pummeled the Wolverines, 70-48, in December in Louisville. They held Hillmon to 12 points and generally stifled Michigan’s offense in a physical matchup.

The Wolverines eked out a 52-49 victory over No. 10 South Dakota, another strong defensive team, in their round-of-16 game. Scoring can sometimes be hard to come by for Michigan, which will need its guards to be more efficient.

Van Lith is the Cardinals’ most important weapon. She scored 23 points in Louisville’s victory over fourth-seeded Tennessee on Saturday to record her third consecutive game with at least 20 points. She will have to continue playing her best basketball for the Cardinals to make their first national semifinal since 2018 and fourth in program history.

To match up with Hillmon, Louisville will rely on forwards Emily Engstler and Olivia Cochran. Engstler, a senior and a W.N.B.A. prospect who transferred to Louisville from Syracuse, had a dominant performance in her team’s early-season victory over Michigan, with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Monday’s game might come down to whether she or Hillmon can assert herself better around the basket.

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