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Women's March Madness has been wilder than ever, but can anyone catch South Carolina?

Guard Caitlin Clark is leading No. 2 seed Iowa Hawkeyes into the Sweet 16, where they'll face sixth-seeded Colorado at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Matthew Holst
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Guard Caitlin Clark is leading No. 2 seed Iowa Hawkeyes into the Sweet 16, where they'll face sixth-seeded Colorado at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

For decades, the story of women's college basketball was dominated by a handful of elite teams and players. But a new narrative is being written at the 2023 women's NCAA basketball tournament in historic fashion — and it's all about parity.

For the first time this century, two No. 1 seeds didn't make it to the Sweet 16, with stunning exits by Stanford and Indiana, who sat atop their respective brackets. It's reportedly just the second time that has ever happened (the only other case: 1998).

It's a new level of March Madness, supercharged by the flexibility of the transfer portal and a policy shift in 2021 that lets basketball players swap schools without having to sit out a waiting period. But it also reflects the women's game growing popularity and the emergence of more talented athletes.

Friday and Saturday offer a roster of enticing games. Here's a quick guide:

Friday's games

No. 4 Villanova vs. No. 9 Miami at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN
No. 2 Utah vs. No. 3 LSU at 5 p.m. ESPN
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 6 Colorado at 7:30 p.m. ESPN
No. 5 Louisville vs. No. 8 Ole Miss at 10 p.m. ESPN

Saturday's games

No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 3 Notre Dame at 11:30 a.m. on ESPN
No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 4 UCLA at 2 p.m. ESPN
No. 2 UConn vs. No. 3 Ohio State at 4 p.m. ABC
No. 1 Virginia Tech vs. No. 4 Tennessee at 6:30 p.m. ESPN2

The eight regional games are being played in Greenville, S.C., and Seattle before moving to Dallas for the Final Four on Friday, March 31. The national title game is set for Sunday, April 2, tipping off at 3 p.m. ET.

Two No. 1s remain, but who will win it all?

Defending champion South Carolina hasn't lost a game in more than a year, led by a group of seniors that includes reigning national player of the year Aliyah Boston. The other No. 1, Virginia Tech, is having its best tournament ever, led by center Elizabeth Kitley, the ACC Player of the Year who averages a double-double in points and rebounds.

All four No. 2 seeds are also still playing, and they're part of a bracket that has plenty of skill and talent to threaten the top seeds. That includes Iowa with the phenomenal guard Caitlin Clark — whose shooting range is often compared to Steph Curry's — to LSU and its star forward Angel Reese, who put up a monster stat line against Michigan in the tournament's second round: 25 points, 24 rebounds, 6 blocks, 4 assists and 3 steals.

UConn is also making a charge, helped by the return of guard Azzi Fudd from a knee injury. Fudd led the Huskies in scoring on Monday for the first time since November, taking some of the load off of forward Aaliyah Edwards.

This year is not a fluke

College sports are being reshaped each off-season by the transfer portal. In women's basketball, the portal is redistributing talent that was once stockpiled by perennial superpowers such as UConn and Tennessee — and it allows upstart programs to quickly gear up for a title run.

One of the most successful transfer groups is in Tennessee, where newcomers Rickea Jackson, Jasmine Powell and Jasmine Franklin have combined to average 60 points a game.

In the Sweet 16, the Vols face Virginia Tech, which added two high-profile transfers of its own in Taylor Soule from Boston College and Ashley Owusu from Maryland, allowing them to spread the floor around Kitley.

Also leaving Maryland was Reese, who's now at LSU. Despite losing two coveted transfers, Maryland is in the Sweet 16 with guard Diamond Miller, along with its own transfers, such as Abby Meyers and Lavender Briggs.

No. 9 seed Miami also got a crucial boost from Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twin-sister guards (and TikTok darlings) who transferred from Fresno State. It was Haley Cavinder who made crucial free throws to upset Indiana — and then shush the crowd while waving goodbye.

NPR's Tom Goldman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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