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Five Takeaways From the Women’s Conference Tournaments

The SEC’s status as the top conference in the sport was solidified over the weekend, but No. 1 South Carolina displayed a potential Achilles heel in Nashville.

Almost all—we’re looking at you, Big 12—of women’s college basketball’s major conference tournaments have wrapped up, with the eyes of the sport slowly turning to Selection Sunday and the NCAA tournament bracket reveal.

This year’s tournament will feature 68 teams for the first time, with NCAA officials also saying it hopes to avoid a repeat of the gender-equity issues it has had previously. But before looking forward, here’s a look at five takeaways from the conference tournaments that have already wrapped up.

1. The SEC Proved Why It’s the Top Conference in College Basketball

This isn’t exactly a major surprise, more so an example of reassurance. The depth of the SEC was on full display last week in Nashville, where a number of the sport’s heavyweights competed in a thrilling tournament. Kentucky, led by likely top-two WNBA draft pick Rhyne Howard, took home its first conference title in 40 years, going on a run that included wins over the No. 1 (South Carolina), No. 6 (LSU) and No. 18 (Tennessee) teams in last week’s AP poll. Their title marked the biggest surprise of conference tournament week (thus far), but also illustrated the depth of the conference as a whole. In ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme’s latest projection, the SEC is slated to have nine teams make the NCAA tournament, the most of any conference. Six of those teams also could be No. 7 seeds or better.

Could a non-SEC team take home a title in the upcoming tournament? It’s certainly possible. But it also wouldn’t be shocking to see multiple Final Four participants come from the loaded conference.

South Carolina guards Zia Cooke (1) and Destanni Henderson (3) encouraging each other during the SEC women’s basketball championship

South Carolina guards Zia Cooke (1) and Destanni Henderson (3) encouraging each other during the SEC championship.

2. An Area of Concern for South Carolina

Despite dropping Sunday’s SEC Championship to Kentucky, South Carolina, justifiably so, should still be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Their loss over the weekend was their first since Dec. 30 and their two defeats this season came by a combined three points. Key to their resumé, among other metrics, are wins over the country’s No. 2 team and No. 3 teams, Stanford and NC State, respectively.

Nevertheless, the SEC tournament did reveal at least one area of concern for the Gamecocks: fourth quarter production. The Gamecocks scored only 15 points combined in the fourth quarter of their semifinal win over Ole Miss and final loss to Kentucky. Coach Dawn Staley said after Sunday’s defeat that “we’ve got to go back to the drawing board” to fix the mistakes in that period. “We’re not a bad basketball team, we just played two bad quarters at the worst time,” Staley added.

South Carolina finished the regular season at No. 1 in HerHoopsStats’ overall rating. But the strength of the Gamecocks has been, and remains, their defense, where they were the lone team in the country to allow less than 70 points per 100 possessions, per HerHoopsStats. While their offense was among the best in the regular season, other top NCAA tournament title contenders like NC State, Stanford and Iowa did finish the year with a better offense. Struggles producing on that end of the floor plagued South Carolina during last week’s tournament and could potentially derail a title run in the coming weeks.

3. UConn Is Rounding Into Form

Don’t look now, but after a Feb. 9 loss to Villanova, UConn enters the NCAA tournament having won 10 consecutive games, playing their best basketball of the season. Each of their three wins in the Big East tournament came by double-digits. And while the Huskies’ offense has been productive, key to their success has been their defense, which has allowed more than 55 points just once since Feb. 13.

“Everything starts with what's happening on the defensive end and the pride that you take on every single possession that you feel it's important to you personally that we get a stop,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Sunday after his team’s win over Marquette in the Big East semifinals. “It's been missing. And I'll be the first to admit it, that this is the closest that it's looked. And I feel really good about it. I'm happy for them, happy for us.”

4. Stanford Continues to Quietly Dominate

With 6:25 seconds to play in the third quarter of the Pac-12 title game, No. 2 Stanford led Utah 41–36. Utah remained in the throes of the contest throughout the third and even cut the deficit to seven after scoring the first basket of the fourth quarter. But they amassed just three more points in the remaining nine plus-minutes of the contest as Stanford outscored its opponents 21–5 in the fourth period.

The final 10 minutes of Sunday’s victory were a fitting way for the Cardinal to end the Pac-12 tournament. The team’s defense, currently No. 2 in HerHoopsStats’ overall metric, has surrendered more than 60 points just twice all season (doing so in consecutive games in mid-January). Even in their three losses, it was Stanford’s offense that more so plagued the Cardinal than their production on the other end of the floor. The reining NCAA champions will enter this year’s tournament having won its final three conference tournament games by a combined 64 points. They also haven’t lost since before Christmas, racking up victory after victory with little fanfare.

5. NC State’s Senior Class Cements Its Historic Legacy

NC State coach Wes Moore said Sunday, after his team captured its third ACC championship in as many seasons, that he felt this year’s title was as rewarding and challenging as any his group had won. Moore explained that he thought his team went through a lull in the middle of January and into February—mind you, a span In which they lost just once—and, at times, “felt like they were just kinda over me.”

The Wolfpack, though, appeared to regain that spark last week when they ran through the ACC tournament. In the process, the school’s senior class of Elissa Cunane, Kayla Jones, Raina Perez and Kai Crutchfield, solidified its legacy as its most dominant in school history. The program has won 80 games combined in the last three years, and had not won a conference title since 1991 before this group took the floor.

“I mean, in the last few years, what a legacy these folks are leaving,” Moore said. “Three straight tournament titles, [a] regular season championship. That's not easy to do, especially in this league that is so talented, so many great coaches.”

There is one thing that this group has not accomplished, however, and that is go on a deep NCAA tournament run. Not since 1998 have the Wolfpack even made an Elite Eight, let alone a Final Four. But for the second consecutive year—and second time in school history—they will likely be a No. 1 seed and seem poised to make even more history.

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