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Women's NCAA tournament primer: Cinderella, breakout star, Final Four picks, more

Kim Beeston, Brigham Young Kim Beeston and BYU pulled two upsets to reach the Sweet 16 but now must face UConn. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Parity is growing in women's college basketball, but when it comes to the NCAA tournament -- which tipped off last Saturday and opens its Sweet 16 tomorrow -- there are still plenty of dominant teams. That means No. 1 seeds usually cruise into the second weekend of the tournament, and this year is no different. As expected, all the top seeds advanced to the regional semifinals, and did so with minimal difficulty.

 

Overall No. 1 seed Connecticut barely broke a sweat in wins over Prairie View A&M and St Joseph’s, and undefeated Notre Dame breezed past Robert Morris and Arizona State. South Carolina did well three time zones away, and opted to stay on the West Coast this week as the Gamecocks prep for the Stanford Regional. And Tennessee got a boost from being at home in its two easy wins in the Louisville Regional. Seventh-seeded LSU took advantage of the same opportunity, upsetting No. 2 seed West Virginia, 76-67 in Baton Rouge, La., after rallying for a 20-4 run in the last five minutes that helped the Tigers pull off the upset.

Opening the tournament at home didn’t turn out to be an advantage for everyone, however. Playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium, injury-plagued and second-seeded Duke fell to DePaul 74-65. The Blue Devils and Mountaineers are the only teams among the top 12 seeds to not advance to the Sweet 16.

Here's a breakdown of the other major storylines from the first two rounds of the women's tournament, and a look at what to expect in this weekend's regionals.

Breakout player: Brittney Martin, Oklahoma State

Before she turned heads with her 20-point, 20-rebound performance in the Cowgirls’ 73-66 win over fourth-seeded Purdue in the second round, Martin helped secure OSU’s first round win over upset-minded Florida Gulf Coast with two steals in the final two seconds. The sophomore guard scored nine points, grabbed 15 rebounds, handed out four assists and blocked a shot before snagging two FGCU long passes in the closing seconds, which allowed Oklahoma State to hold on to a 61-60 overtime win.

Meet Cinderella: Brigham Young

BYU’s 72-57 win over fifth-seeded North Carolina State was impressive enough, but the 12th-seeded Cougars’ real shocker came when they upended fourth-seeded Nebraska 80-76 in Lincoln, preventing the Cornhuskers from even reaching the regional that will be held on their home floor. Lexi Eaton had 25 points and eight rebounds in the first round, then followed it up with 15 points and six rebounds in the second round. Jennifer Hamson, a 6-foot-7 senior, has 33 rebounds and 13blocks in the tournament. Playing Connecticut hardly feels like a reward for making it this deep, but the Cougars will take it.

Best game so far: Baylor 75, California 56

Second-seeded Baylor might have beaten seventh-seeded Cal by 19 points, but don’t be fooled by the final score. The battle between Bears featured seven ties and 17 lead changes and was still close for most of the second half. It also pitted two of the best point guards in the women’s game against each other. Baylor’s Odyssey Sims (27 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals) squared off against Cal’s Brittany Boyd (15 points, seven assists, three rebounds and three steals) in a matchup any hoops junkie would have loved.

Best Sweet 16 matchup: Baylor vs. Kentucky, Part II

Earlier this season, the Bears and Wildcats met in what became an instant classic. Playing in a doubleheader with the Kentucky men’s team, it took four overtimes for the Wildcats to hold off Baylor, 133-130, in one of the best games in women’s college basketball history. Who knew we’d be lucky enough to see the rematch? In the first meeting, Kentucky guard Jennifer O’Neill came off the bench to score a school-record 43 points. Sims topped that individual performance, going for 47 points, but you can bet she’s been anxious for a rematch since December.

Final Four predictions:

Home court advantage will be back in play during the Elite Eight, which will be hosted by Notre Dame, Louisville, Stanford and Nebraska. That will be a big edge for the Cardinals and Cardinal, even though they aren't the highest-seeded teams left in their respective regionals and will have to set up camp in the visitors’ locker room. Expect those first three teams to head to Nashville. And defending champion UConn is so good, it doesn’t matter where the Huskies play — they'll make it out of Lincoln and go on to the Music City with a chance at winning the program's ninth national championship.

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