Five Teams to Watch in the N.C.A.A. Women’s Tournament

One of the greatest joys in sports is seeing a team come out of nowhere to contend, or even win. This year’s N.C.A.A. women’s basketball...


One of the greatest joys in sports is seeing a team come out of nowhere to contend, or even win. This year’s N.C.A.A. women’s basketball bracket has plenty of newcomers, and they all have the potential to make noise.

The thing about up and coming teams is that they are hungry for that first tournament victory, and everything is a milestone. For many of them, it’s been win or go home for the last few weeks.

At least five newcomers should make things interesting.

The Mountain Hawks did not have an easy path to the Patriot League championship. First they knocked off top-seeded Bucknell on the road; then, they stopped a near-dominant second-seeded Boston University team, also on the road.

The Patriot League hosted its tournament on campus sites, so there was a lot of traveling to beat two teams that were expected to head to San Antonio. The win at Boston was particularly impressive. Lehigh staked a lead in the first quarter and never allowed a sharp shooting Terriers squad back in the game, earning its first tournament berth since 2010.

The Mountain Hawks are dangerous in sneaky ways; their 200 fouls were the 15th fewest in the country. Their three-point shooting is their bread and butter, with 9.8 attempts per game going for three, and their defense is tough, holding teams to a 26.2 percent clip behind the arc, 19th lowest in the nation.

Like all Patriot League teams, the Mountain Hawks only played teams in their own conference, and got in 15 games after starting their campaign in January. Lehigh isn’t the kind of team getting the usual March hype headlines, but that they have been in upset mode for weeks already is a worthy narrative.

They sneaked up on two teams in the Patriot League. Perhaps they will do it on a bigger stage.

For the first time in 26 years, the Mountaineers are dancing. The Northeast Conference champs easily defeated Wagner 70-38 on their way to the national tournament.

Fourth-year head coach Maria Marchesano led them to their first 20-win season since 1999. The last time they made the national tournament was 1995, their only other appearance coming in 1994.

The romping on Sunday to earn the crown wasn’t a foregone conclusion, either. The second-ranked Seahawks had swept Mount at the end of the regular season, but the Mountaineers responded with a vengeance.

Not a ton stands out about the Mountaineers on paper. Their 12.7 scoring margin was 26th in the nation. The margin of victory in the title game, the first NEC championship with a gap that large since 2013, is a good example of what they are like when firing on all cylinders.

An all-Maryland matchup is always fun, though, and to play against a big dog like the Terps in the first round and keep it in-state for a wild group of Maryland basketball fans will surely give the No. 15 seed some additional energy.

Rebecca Lee had two double-doubles in the conference tournament and Aryna Taylor and Kendall Bresee were dominant as well. Keep an eye on them: they will be the go-to players on offense.

The seventh-seeded Cowgirls in Mountain West have been playing one-and-done basketball for a while. Ranked so low in their own conference, they needed an automatic qualifier bid to have a prayer at the national tournament.

It took four wins in four nights to punch their ticket, including a tight 59-56 win over Fresno State in the championship game. They became the lowest seed to win the Mountain West tournament.

Quinn Weidemann was named the tournament MVP averaging 13.5 points per game.

Leading scorer McKinley Bradshaw averaged 11.6 points per game during the course of the season and she and Weidemann will be the Cowgirls most relied upon scorers.

Their strength is their defense; the Cowgirls allowed just 57.3 opponent points per game, good for the 35th ranked team in the country.

This rendition of the Cowgirls, a program that has been active since 1973, had never won a conference championship game. When they made the tournament in 2008, it was as an at-large squad.

They defeated four-time conference champion Boise State and second-seeded UNLV and finally Fresno State. There are five Wyoming-born players on the roster, and they have already led the Cowgirls to more success than the program has ever seen.

It’s hard to say any more victories would simply be gravy, but it has already been a fairy-tale season for the Cowgirls.

In their third consecutive C.A.A. championship, the Dragons finally got it done by taking down top-seeded Delaware. It’s been years of heartbreak, and it looked like they were on pace for a third consecutive defeat with a nine-point halftime deficit to overcome.

Instead, Junior Keishana Washington, the tournament’s M.V.P. came through with back-to-back 30 point contests to lead the Dragons. Senior Hannah Nihill tallied 14 points after halftime to help in the dramatic comeback.

The Dragons story, like so many teams either making their debut or first appearance in a decade, is one of perseverance. They weren’t favored in a deep C.A.A. field, with Delaware and Towson expected to win.

Junior guard Maura Hendrixson finished the season with a 3.80 assist to turnover ratio, good for third in the nation. Nihill was 17th with 2.86 steals per game. This is a team that will steal possessions and not turn the ball over.

Drexel is tremendous at disrupting teams, and that’s what it’s all about for squads seeking to upset their opponents. The Dragons might just keep on surprising.

It took a big effort to beat a solid Maine team in the America East championship, but the Sea Wolves are dancing for the first time.

It could have been the second; Stony Brook got close to its first America East title last season before the tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic right after they qualified for the game.

With a chance to finally take it, they did, upsetting the Black Bears behind Anastasia Warren, who netted a career-high 31 points and sunk two free throws with 0.7 seconds left in the game to seal a 64-60 victory against the team they should have battled a year ago. It was a huge emotional victory.

The Sea Wolves must now turn their attention toward bigger — and better — opponents. Their scoring defense was fourth in the nation with opponents averaging just 50.7 points per game. They can smother teams on that end of the floor, like they did against a solid scoring offense like Maine.

Now, on a bigger stage than the America East tournament, they look to defy the odds again.

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