Powers Remain and Threats Lurk as Women’s Sweet 16 Is Set

Sure, South Carolina and UConn are among the schools still in the mix — but so are the upset magicians South Dakota and Creighton.

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By Alan Blinder

BATON ROUGE, La. — The Pete Maravich Assembly Center has spent 50 years seeing commencements and concerts, presidential power and a governor’s prayer rally.

It was not until this past weekend, though, that it came within about five minutes of hosting the second-biggest upset in the history of the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament.

Then the No. 3 seed Louisiana State surged, 14th-seeded Jackson State sputtered and the tournament, long derided as something of a predictable spectacle, went on apace. But the Southern drama — and the theatrics that emerged elsewhere, in places like Iowa City and College Park, Md. — showed how the competition can yield stunners, near misses and, as expected, mostly unchecked and unchallenged marches by the sport’s elite toward next month’s Final Four.

And escaping one game is, as ever, no guarantee of surviving the next: L.S.U. lost to Ohio State, seeded sixth, on Monday night. The reigning national runner-up went down, too, and Connecticut, which has won 11 championships, nearly did.

“There are enough good players out there that everybody can be successful,” Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s coach, said before the field shrank to 16 teams on Monday night. “I’m not really surprised by some of the mid-majors being able to upset some higher seeds.”

She added: “All of our game is pretty special, and now we’re just really starting to see the other side of it. I think sometimes we just concentrate on the hot teams and coaches in the Power 5. Now the mid-majors are, you know, they’re rising. I don’t think they’re catching anybody off guard.”

Starting on Friday, the tournament, which began with 68 teams, its largest field ever, will move from the home courts of the top 16 seeds to regional sites in Bridgeport, Conn., Greensboro, N.C., Spokane, Wash., and Wichita, Kan. The Final Four will be played in Minneapolis on April 1, with the championship game tipping off there two days later.

But after four play-in games and two full rounds, no one can yet feel fully safe. In fact, for some, the perils are only beginning.

South Carolina, the tournament’s top overall seed, will next face North Carolina, which on Monday pummeled last season’s runner-up, Arizona. North Carolina State, another No. 1 seed, has a path to Minneapolis that may involve having to beat the University of Connecticut, which is seeking its 14th consecutive Final Four berth but looked shaky on Monday, in Connecticut. Louisville could wind up facing South Dakota, which has already ousted second-seeded Baylor and Mississippi, a No. 7 seed, from the tournament. If Stanford, the top seed in the Spokane region, and Ohio State meet, one bench would include the 2021 champion and the other a program that recently knocked off a title-winning coach’s latest team.

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