COLUMBIA, S.C. — They met in the national semifinals last season in a game that went down to the wire. This year, might South Carolina (25-1) and Stanford (23-3) end up in the women’s NCAA championship game? If you were betting on it today, the odds would be with you.
Coming down to the last few games of the regular season for many conferences, the Gamecocks and Cardinal are Nos. 1-2 in the national polls and in ESPN’s Power Rankings. South Carolina has been a fixture in the top spot since the preseason, while Stanford started at No. 3.
An early loss to Texas dropped Stanford, but the Cardinal climbed to the No. 2 spot in the polls by Dec. 20 and then faced the Gamecocks in a 1-2 showdown in Columbia, South Carolina, on Dec. 21. Stanford dominated the first half, leading 42-28, but South Carolina owned the second half and won 65-61.
That was a turnaround from the Final Four last April, when the Cardinal prevailed 66-65 before going on to beat Arizona for coach Tara VanDerveer’s long-awaited third national championship.
If either is to win the title this year, history would suggest that VanDerveer and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley will meet in Minneapolis. They have always been in each other’s paths before on the way to an NCAA title.
VanDerveer’s Cardinal beat the Virginia team Staley played for in the 1990 and ’92 national semifinals, as well as the Staley-coached Gamecocks in last year’s semis; Stanford won all three of those titles. Likewise, in 2017, South Carolina beat Stanford in the semifinals before winning its first national championship.
The other two teams projected as No. 1 seeds this season are no slouches. NC State (25-3) clinched a share of the ACC regular-season title Sunday, the Wolfpack’s first since 1990. They have won the ACC tournament the past two seasons as the No. 2 seed and will be the top seed in this year’s league tournament.
Fellow ACC team Louisville (23-3) lost to North Carolina on Thursday, but bounced back with a victory over Virginia Tech on Sunday. Louisville hasn’t faced the Gamecocks or Cardinal this season. NC State fell 66-57 to South Carolina in the season opener on Nov. 9.
South Carolina, Stanford, NC State and Louisville are the only major conference teams that have just three or fewer losses. But the Gamecocks have looked the most dominant.
South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston has 19 consecutive double-doubles, which ties the SEC record, and her poise and consistency has rubbed off on the rest of the team.
“I think once you stick to the game plan, you know what you’re supposed to do and everything else is kind of just background noise,” Boston said.
Boston is the centerpiece for the Gamecocks and the favorite for national player of the year, but South Carolina’s depth is formidable.
Haley Jones draws the foul and somehow gets the go-ahead bucket to fall for Stanford in the final minute.
With players such as 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso, 6-4 Laeticia Amihere and 6-1 Saniya Rivers coming off the bench, Staley has a lot of size and ability to call on. Even if a player as irreplaceable a Boston gets in foul trouble (which doesn’t happen often), there are very good reinforcements.
The same is true for Stanford, just as it was last season. Stanford’s biggest personnel loss was point guard Kiana Williams, and her absence contributed to losses to Texas, South Florida and South Carolina. Stanford now is on a 15-game winning streak, which came close to ending Sunday at Oregon. The Ducks had a 10-point lead with 8 minutes left in the game, and were still up by eight with 5 minutes to go. But Haley Jones, last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player, scored seven points in the closing minutes. She was all over the court offensively and defensively as the Cardinal rallied to win 66-62.
Jones is the Cardinal’s star, but there is a lot of depth for VanDerveer to work with. The eight players who scored for Stanford on Sunday didn’t even include Hannah Jump, who is averaging 11.3 PPG and is the Cardinal’s top 3-point shooter this season, or Ashten Prechtel, hero of last year’s Elite Eight come-from-behind victory.
There are still a lot of games to be played before the NCAA tournament, but the way things stand now, South Carolina and Stanford look like they might be on a collision course again.
Texas’ Rori Harmon drains the jumper just short of the 3-point line vs. Iowa State.
After three consecutive losses — two of them to nemesis Baylor — the Longhorns have gotten back on track with four victories in a row. Freshman guard Harmon led the way this past week with a combined 39 points, 14 rebounds 16 assists and nine steals in victories over No. 6 Iowa State and West Virginia.
“We’ve got some young kids playing a lot of minutes and they’re getting better,” Texas coach Vic Schaefer said. “I’m excited for our kids; they have a chance to do something special.”
The Cougars have had a rough time against ranked teams this season, averaging just 42.6 points in five losses to those opponents coming into Sunday. But that changed as they upset visiting No. 8 Arizona 72-67. Washington State also defeated Arizona State 65-58 on Friday.
With those wins, Washington State tied the program record for most Pac-12 victories in a season; the Cougars are now 10-5 and tied with Oregon for second in the league. Washington State (18-8) has also tied the program mark for most victories in a season in the NCAA era. The 1990-91 Cougars team set both those records.
Louisville fails to convert its last shot as North Carolina manages to pull off a 66-65 win.
The Cardinals have dominated the Tar Heels since Louisville came into the ACC in 2014-15. But North Carolina beat Louisville as a conference opponent for the first time on Thursday, 66-65. The Tar Heels had been 1-5 vs. teams in the top 25 of the NET rakings this season before knocking off the Cardinals, who were No. 4 in the NET at the time.
With that victory, the Tar Heels (20-5) hit the 20-win threshold for the first time since their Sweet 16 season of 2014-15, when they went 26-9.
Coach of the Week: Brandon Schneider, Kansas Jayhawks
Kansas beat West Virginia and Texas Tech this past week, moving the Jayhawks to 19-5 overall and 10-4 in the Big 12. It is the first time Kansas has reached double-digit conference wins in a season since 1999-2000. That moves Kansas into third place in the Big 12 behind Baylor and Iowa State, and the Jayhawks host the Cyclones on Wednesday. Kansas has won seven straight games.
The Jayhawks are seeking their first NCAA tournament appearance under Schneider, who is in his seventh season in Lawrence. Kansas is currently projected as a No. 9 seed in Charlie Creme’s Bracketology. It was also a big week for Schneider’s family: His father, longtime coach Bob Schneider, was announced as an inductee into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this summer.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks (25-1)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: at Texas A&M (Thursday), at Ole Miss (Sunday)
With their victory over No. 12 Tennessee on Sunday, the Gamecocks became the third team in SEC history to win their first 10 games against ranked opponents in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The other two teams to do that were both from Tennessee: in 1993-94 (won first 11 against ranked foes) and 1997-98 (17-0 against top-25 teams).
2. Stanford Cardinal (23-3)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Washington State (Thursday), vs. Washington (Saturday)
The Cardinal had to pull an escape act at Oregon on Sunday to keep their Pac-12 record perfect, and they did just that. It was the first time since women’s basketball went to quarters (2015-16) that Stanford has come back from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to win. Another note on Stanford’s depth: In the Cardinal’s seven victories in February, five different players have been their leading scorer.
3. NC State Wolfpack (25-3)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: at Virginia Tech (Sunday)
It was a very good week for the Wolfpack’s offense, as they beat Wake Forest 92-61 and Syracuse 95-53. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it’s the first time since February 1991 that the Wolfpack have scored in the 90s in back-to-back ACC games. The 95 points — which came as NC State celebrated senior day Sunday — is the Wolfpack’s most points in a conference game since falling 96-95 to Duke in 1997. NC State has a mid-week bye and then finishes at Virginia Tech, hoping to go 17-1 in the conference. Their 16 league wins now are the most in program history.
4. Baylor Bears (21-5)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Oklahoma State (Wednesday), Kansas (Saturday)
With back-to-back victories over TCU this past week, Baylor is again atop the Big 12, tied with Iowa State at 11-3. The Bears won their first matchup this season with the Cyclones, Jan. 23 in Waco, Texas, but the rematch is Feb. 28 at Iowa State. Senior post player Queen Egbo has had four consecutive double-doubles for Baylor.
5. Louisville Cardinals (23-3)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: at Pittsburgh (Thursday), at Notre Dame (Sunday)
The Cardinals fell 66-65 to North Carolina on Thursday for their second ACC loss, but mitigated that damage with a comfortable victory over Virginia Tech on Sunday. Their rematch against the Irish this week could be interesting, as Notre Dame will be looking to avenge a 73-47 loss at Louisville on Feb. 13.
6. LSU Tigers (23-4)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: vs. Alabama (Thursday), at Tennessee (Sunday)
With victories over Mississippi State and Florida, the Tigers moved into second place alone in the SEC at 11-3. Playing in front of a sold-out crowd Sunday, LSU’s three starting guards struggled from the field (a combined 9-of-47). But the Tigers’ starting posts were a combined 10-of-12, which showed that LSU can rely on its inside game, too.
7. Michigan Wolverines (21-4)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Michigan State (Thursday), at Iowa (Sunday)
After a tough week in which the Wolverines lost twice, they had time to prepare for Maryland. And it looked like they were ready for the Terps, holding down their offense again in a 71-59 victory Sunday. It is the first time that the Wolverines have swept the Terps in a season series; they won at Maryland 69-49 on Jan. 16. Michigan now leads the Big Ten at 12-3, but the top five in the league are in a logjam.
8. Maryland Terrapins (20-7)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Indiana (Friday)
Taking nothing away from Michigan, but the Terps looked a little gassed there Sunday after beating Iowa and Ohio State earlier in the week. Angel Reese was exceptional against the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes, with a combined 46 points and 28 rebounds, but she was held to six and five by the Wolverines. The good news for Maryland is that point guard Ashley Owusu is back after an ankle sprain, and the Terps finish the regular season at home vs. the Hoosiers.
9. Texas Longhorns (19-6)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: at Kansas State (Wednesday), vs. TCU (Saturday)
Texas has been coming on strong the past two weeks and made a big jump in the Power Rankings. The Longhorns’ 73-48 victory over Iowa State sent a message about how good Texas’ defense can be when it’s clicking. Texas followed that with a 67-58 win at West Virginia.
10. Iowa State Cyclones (22-4)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Kansas (Wednesday), vs. Texas Tech (Saturday)
It was a frustrating loss for the Cyclones at Texas last Wednesday, but a good bounce-back to beat Oklahoma 89-67 on Saturday. Iowa State and Oklahoma both love the 3-pointer, but the Cyclones — traditionally the Big 12’s best team from behind the arc — won that battle 24-14 in their two games vs. the Sooners this season.
11. UConn Huskies (19-5)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: vs. Marquette (Wednesday), vs. St. John’s (Friday), vs. Providence (Sunday)
As expected, it was an easy week for the Huskies, as they cruised over Xavier by 54 points and Georgetown by 41. Christyn Williams had a combined 32 points and 10 assists. They finish the regular season with three games at home this week.
12. Florida Gators (20-7)
Previous ranking: NR
This week: at Vanderbilt (Thursday), vs. Missouri (Sunday)
The Gators have been the biggest surprise in women’s college basketball this season, and they make their debut in the Power Rankings following another good week. After beating Auburn and Arkansas, they gave LSU all the Tigers could handle Sunday before falling short 66-61. The Gators have won 10 of their last 12 and currently are tied for third in the SEC with Tennessee at 10-4.
13. Arizona Wildcats (19-5)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: vs. UCLA (Thursday), vs. USC (Sunday)
The Wildcats didn’t have a very good trip north this past week. Friday, they struggled to beat last-place Washington 51-42 in a game that was 16-7 at halftime. Then Sunday, Arizona’s vaunted defense didn’t hold up in a 72-67 loss at Washington State. Arizona will look to regroup and have a strong finish at home heading into the Pac-12 tournament.
14. Indiana Hoosiers (19-5)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: at Iowa (Monday), at Maryland (Friday)
After falling 72-55 at Nebraska in their worst loss of the season Monday, the Hoosiers came back Thursday with a 69-58 win over Northwestern. Indiana forward Mackenzie Holmes returned against the Wildcats after missing eight games with a knee injury. Then in one of the stranger games in the Big Ten — or anywhere else — this season, Indiana scored 42 points in the fourth quarter against Iowa on Saturday, but still lost the game 96-91. They have two tough games on the road this week to finish the regular season.
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (20-6)
Previous ranking: NR
This week: vs. Clemson (Thursday), vs. Louisville (Sunday)
The Irish have been in and out of the Power Rankings in recent weeks, but they are back in now after a 72-66 overtime win at Georgia Tech on Thursday. At 12-4, Notre Dame is tied with Virginia Tech for third in the ACC.
16. North Carolina Tar Heels (21-5)
Previous ranking: NR
This week: at Virginia (Thursday), vs. Duke (Sunday)
It was a big week for the Tar Heels, as they upset then-No. 3 Louisville 66-65 at home Thursday, and then won by 20 points at Florida State on Sunday. Sophomore Deja Kelly scored a combined 44 points in those victories.
In the waiting room
Ohio State Buckeyes (20-5): The Buckeyes’ four Big Ten losses have all come to ranked teams: Indiana, Maryland and Michigan (twice). They have a chance to finish strong, closing the regular season with unranked Penn State and Michigan State.
Oklahoma Sooners (20-4): Losses to Texas Tech and Iowa State dropped the Sooners from the Power Rankings, but they are still tied for fourth in the Big 12 with Texas. This week they travel to TCU and then face Kansas State at home.
Virginia Tech Hokies (20-7): Louisville cooled off the Hokies on Sunday after they had won five in a row. But Virginia Tech is still tied for third in the ACC at 12-4. They finish the regular season with Miami and NC State at home.