The dust has settled on the opening weekend of the 2024 Women’s NCAA Tournament, setting the stage for a host of highly anticipated Sweet 16 matchups between the sport’s biggest stars. With our hometown hero Stags bowing out in the first round against Indiana to cap off their magical season (more on that in next week’s issue!), we here at The Mirror figured now would be a good time to give some unbiased predictions for the rest of the tournament. So, if you’re looking to fill out the perfect second chance bracket for bragging rights over your friends and family, look no further (I give zero guarantees that any of this will be right).

Let’s start with Regional One in Albany, featuring the tournament’s top seed, South Carolina. Simply put, I see this as the “don’t overthink it” region. The Gamecocks haven’t lost a game all year, and as much as I’d like to see Indiana go on a deep run after taking us out, it just seems incredibly unlikely for them to pull the upset.

On the other side of the region, we have Oregon State matching up with freshman phenom Hannah Hidalgo and Notre Dame. Despite Hidalgo’s individual brilliance and her ability to take over games, I’m gonna go with the Beavers here in a minor upset. In what will become somewhat of a common theme throughout these predictions, I think the strength of the Pac-12 Conference during the regular season will pay dividends as we progress further into the tournament. Oregon State has been repeatedly tested by other top seeds in a way Notre Dame can’t quite compare to, and in a close game late I think that makes the difference. Hidalgo will get her time in the spotlight soon, but the Beavers do enough to get over the hump and reach the Elite Eight where they’re unceremoniously disposed of by the Gamecocks buzzsaw.

That takes us across the bracket to Regional Two, also in Albany, featuring perhaps the most hyped up teams and players of the event. Fans across the country are clamoring for a 2023 National Championship rematch between Caitlin Clark’s top seeded Iowa and Angel Reese’s three-seed LSU, this time in the Elite Eight. But what if I told you neither of them will get that far?

In likely the biggest upset of the bracket thus far, I’ve got Colorado stunning the Hawkeyes, followed by UCLA taking down LSU to set up an all Pac-12 Elite Eight matchup. Caitlin Clark is generational, there’s no doubt. But she’s been less than stellar in her recent outings, shooting just 32.5 percent from three and 40 percent from the field overall. And behind her, the Hawkeyes just don’t have enough production to overcome those types of performances against the best teams in the country. Hannah Stuelke and Sydney Affolter are good players, but they don’t provide the Hawkeyes with a reliable one-two punch that can pick up the slack when Clark’s logo threes aren’t falling. 

As for UCLA and LSU, a win for the Bruins isn’t really an upset, but would still be big news given LSU’s national reach and their standing as defending champions. Between the seemingly constant drama surrounding the team and the lackluster play of point guard Hailey Van Lith, I’m gonna play it safe and go with UCLA, who I also have reaching the Final Four after a win over Colorado.

Then we go to Regional Three in Portland, where top seed USC will take on Baylor and three-seed UConn will play the upstart seven-seed Duke. In the Sweet Sixteen I’ve got the top seeds; Baylor doesn’t have the firepower to compete with JuJu Watkins and co., and despite their great upset win over Ohio State, I think Duke’s run comes to an end against the Huskies.

Then, in a high-flying Elite Eight matchup between two of the game’s biggest stars in Watkins and UConn guard Paige Bueckers, I like the Huskies again to make yet another Final Four. Much like Hannah Hidalgo earlier, I think JuJu Watkins will have her time in the sun eventually, but the championship pedigree and experience of the Huskies will make the difference as they return to yet another Final Four. 

Last but not least, Regional Four in Portland. Here we have the top four seeds straight up, with top seed Texas taking on Gonzaga and Stanford matching up with North Carolina State. I think the balanced scoring of Gonzaga helps them spring an upset over Texas, while Stanford knocks out NC State and the Bulldogs afterwards to reach the Final Four behind the frontcourt tandem of Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen.

To cap it all off, I’ve got UConn over UCLA to reach the National Championship Game, where they’ll meet… not South Carolina?

That’s right, I think the perfect season comes to an end at the hands of Stanford. Maybe it’s just the upset lover in me, but I really think Brink and Iriafen pose a significant challenge for the Gamecocks on the defensive end. Star center Kamilla Cardoso can only be in so many places at once. 

And to cap it all off, I like the Cardinal to ride that momentum and beat UConn for their program’s fourth national title. Head coach Tara VanDerveer took over the lead for most wins all time in either men’s or women’s college basketball this year, and I think with this roster she’s able to reach the mountaintop once again after doing so in 2021. 

So there you have it. My totally expert and very much not going to be completely wrong Sweet 16 and beyond predictions for Women’s March Madness. The game of women’s college basketball has never been played or appreciated at a higher level than right now, so regardless of the results we should be in store for some great games.    

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