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Re-seeding the Sweet 16 as the NCAA Tournament rolls on

Destanni Henderson and South Carolina headline the Sweet 16 field at the NCAA Tournament. (Gerry Melendez/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The Sweet 16 is upon us, and with it comes a few surprises — North Dakota and Creighton — and some anticipated arrivals — South Carolina and Stanford.

Some teams have played better than their seedings have indicated, and others have played worse. Here’s what the field would look like on Friday if the teams were re-ranked. Plus, I offer up my picks for which teams I think advance to the Elite Eight.

1. South Carolina

The one consistency in this tournament has been the play of the No. 1 seeds. While at least one team at every other spot has been challenged, the one seeds have proved their worth, which is why I’m leaving those four teams atop the rankings.

South Carolina remains my overall No. 1. The Gamecocks defeated Howard 79-21 and Miami 49-33 to advance to the Sweet 16.

They haven’t showcased the offensive prowess that we’ve become accustomed to this season, but that’s no reason to be concerned. The old coach’s cliche, “defense wins championships,” applies here. The Gamecocks held Howard to 15 percent shooting from the field and just eight points in the first three quarters. Then they forced Miami into a 24-percent shooting performance, including three quarters of single-digit scoring. Offense ebbs and flows, but if a team can play defense like that, it has an edge in every contest. Still, the tougher the competition becomes, the more crucial that Gamecocks offense will be.

X-Factor: The re-emergence of elite offense

2. Stanford

Through the first two rounds, the Cardinal have put together the best offensive performance of any team. Against Montana State, they shot 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc with nine 3-pointers. They had four double-digit scorers in the first game, and in the second Lexie Hull erupted for 36 points. The scariest thing about this Stanford team is that it has at least six players who are capable of going off for 20 points.

The Cardinal’s inside presence is tough, with Cameron Brink leading the way. Fran Belibi has emerged as an excellent option off the bench, and Haley Jones, Lexie and Lacie Hull, Anna Wilson and Hannah Jump each bring different skill sets. It all adds up to a dominant offense that is challenging to scheme against.

X-Factor: Continued balance

3. NC State

NC State also keeps its ranking heading into the Sweet 16, largely because of its equal-opportunity offense. At this point in the season, everyone knows what Elissa Cunane brings to the floor, but the rest of the team is clicking as well. The Wolfpack easily handled Longwood thanks to five double-digit scorers. Against Kansas State, Cunane was neutralized with foul trouble, playing just 13 minutes and scoring four points. Kayla Jones stepped up and recorded 18 points, while Raina Perez and Diamond Johnson each contributed 15 points to spread out the scoring.

X-Factor: Guard play stays solid

4. Louisville

After an easy win over Albany, the Cardinals were tested by Gonzaga and passed. The Zags kept it close, down by four at the half, but Louisville went on a 20-12 run in the third to help secure the victory. Gonzaga is a disciplined squad, but Louisville was able to force 18 turnovers, including six from Kayleigh Truong, GU’s trusty point guard. Meanwhile, Louisville took care of the ball, giving it away just eight times.

The offense wasn’t perfect — the Cards shot 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the arc — but Louisville found ways to make up for it. Still, that shooting will need to improve if the Cardinals want to keep dancing.

X-Factor: Shooting heats up

5. Texas

Texas is a team that can beat anyone in the country when it’s playing at its best. And right now, the Longhorns are doing just that. Their win against Utah was an offensive and defensive master class. Texas shot 64 percent from the field and forced 19 turnovers, which led to 18 points on the other end. Rori Harmon continues to be one of the best guards in the country, and right now, I’d pick the freshman over just about anyone.

X-Factor: Harmon continues to play beyond her age

6. Maryland

Maryland may have one of the strongest starting fives in the country in Ashley Owusu, Diamond Miller, Katie Benzan, Angel Reese and Chloe Bibby. Offensively, there’s no question Maryland is a top team, but its shortcoming at times this season has been defense. Not so in the tournament.

Against Delaware, the Terrapins allowed Jasmine Dickey to score 31 points, but she had to put up 32 shots to do so, and they limited everyone else. Then they held Florida Gulf Coast’s potent offense in check as well, as the Eagles turned the ball over 15 times and shot 38 percent for the game.

X-Factor: Defense, defense, defense

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Hannah Sjerven led South Dakota with 16 points in the upset of No. 2 Baylor. (Darren Carroll/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

7. South Dakota

Maybe I’m getting caught up in the excitement of an upset, but South Dakota and Creighton have played their way into the top half of these teams. If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you’ll know I put a lot of stock in maturity on the court. South Dakota certainly has that. The Coyotes are led by three fifth-year seniors: Chloe Lamb (16.1 points per game), Hannah Sjerven (15) and Liv Korngable (12.7). This group is battle-tested and ready for anything, as it showed through the first two rounds.

X-Factor: Ability to defend opposing stars

8. Creighton

The other darling of the tournament, Creighton, is next on the list. Putting the narrative of Lauren Jensen upsetting her former team aside, there is a lot to like about the Bluejays. For starters, everyone on the floor can score. Morgan Maly is third on the team in points per game, and she comes off the bench. The offense is well-rounded: The Bluejays love to share the ball, and they also take care of it. Creighton leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.59. Add those things together, and it leads me to believe Creighton can stay hot.

X-Factor: Multiple players continue to score

9. Indiana

The Hoosiers are starting to look like the team that was top five for much of the season. With Mackenzie Holmes almost back to full form — she’s averaging 29 minutes, 14.5 points and eight rebounds per game through the first two rounds — and Chloe Moore-McNeil providing a lift as another scoring weapon off the bench, Indiana is in good shape on offense. Princeton was a tough test, but IU survived, showing its resilience. That is important as the competition ramps up.

X-Factor: Holmes’ domination in the paint

10. Iowa State

Led by Ashley Joens, Iowa State has a solid trio of scorers. The senior is the obvious leader, and has been all season, while Emily Ryan is exactly what a team wants in a point guard. She’s a skilled scorer, but more importantly, she probes defenses with a purpose and helps put her teammates in positions to be successful. Lexi Donarski, their third-leading scorer, put up 20 points in the win over Georgia. But here’s my concern with Iowa State: After those three, what do they have? Through the first two rounds, the Cyclones have just five total bench points.

X-Factor: Role players must step up

11. UConn

I have UConn in my championship game, and though I’ve rethought a lot of the bracket-related decisions I made, that isn’t one of them. So why do I have UConn at 11th on this list? The Huskies are capable of performing as a championship-caliber team, but I didn’t see that against UCF. Had the Knights shot better at the free-throw line, I might be ranking them instead of the Huskies. Most of UConn’s offense didn’t show up in that game, and Paige Bueckers didn’t look like herself. UConn can be great, but the Huskies have a lot to figure out before they meet Indiana on Saturday.

X-Factor: A complete offensive showing

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Michigan's success hinges on Naz Hillmon's play in the post. (Tim Fuller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

12. Michigan

This is a difficult list to make because every team has a ton of upside. It’s the Sweet 16, after all. Michigan being this low doesn’t feel right, but I also don’t think the Wolverines can jump anyone above them, so here we are. Defensively, Michigan has been solid. The Wolverines held American to 1-for-21 shooting from beyond the arc (4.8 percent), and limited Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist (the nation’s second-leading scorer at 25.3 points per game) to just 12 points.

But offensively, this team is similar to Iowa State. Naz Hillmon is phenomenal and Leigha Brown has been solid, but I need to see more from the Wolverines.

X-Factor: Significant offensive output from a player not named Hillmon or Brown

13. Notre Dame

I know I praised Notre Dame for their monster scoring performance, and I stand by that. It was quite the feat. But as far as tournament implications, it doesn’t tell us much. Per Her Hoop Stats, Oklahoma is the 351st team in the country in opponent points per game. That means there are only four squads who give up more points per contest. So, celebrate the 108 points, just do so knowing the context. Aside from that, UMass gave the Irish a scare in Round 1. The Fighting Irish shot great once again (57.6 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from 3), but they allowed UMass to make seven 3-pointers and stay in the game.

X-Factor: Score consistently against better defensive teams

14. Ohio State

Ohio State got off to a dominant start against LSU, and then weathered a run by the Tigers on their home court in the fourth quarter. Jacy Sheldon continues to impress. She had 23 points and eight assists. Taylor Mikesell added 18, including four of her signature 3-pointers, but the real highlight for the Buckeyes was Rebeka Mikulasikova. She shut down Faustin Aifuwa, holding her to two points, while contributing 12 points of her own. If she’s performing at a high level, Ohio State adds another dimension to its offense.

X-Factor: Mikulasikova holds her own inside

15. North Carolina

Again, there is no bad team on this list. North Carolina just knocked off a solid Arizona team as its sophomore trio answered the test. Kennedy Williams-Todd had 19 points, Deja Kelly added 15 and Alyssa Utsby finished with 12. The Tar Heels were also tough in the paint, outscoring Arizona 30-18. All that said, I still can’t justify moving UNC up any higher on this list.

X-Factor: Sophomores continue to shine

16. Tennessee

Remember when I said making this list was hard? Well, picking my 16th team wasn’t. That’s because I still can’t figure out Tennessee. This team has so much talent, and yet they squeaked into the Sweet 16. The win over Buffalo was a bit more convincing than the defeat of Belmont, but the Vols still only pulled away in the fourth quarter despite Buffalo shooting just 35 percent. Tennessee has struggled all season with teams who can shoot from long distance, and to me, that’s a big concern going forward. And yet, well, keep reading to find out …

X-Factor(s): Ability to defend the 3-point line, and the potential return of Jordan Horston

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Azzi Fudd and UConn have the potential to win the title if they're clicking on all cylinders. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

My Picks

South Carolina over UNC

The Gamecocks have just too much talent at every position for North Carolina to contend with. I stand by my original prediction and choose the Gamecocks.

Texas over Ohio State

The Longhorns are at the top of their game right now. If they continue to click on both ends of the floor, this one goes their way. Still, Ohio State should put up a better fight than Texas’ previous two opponents.

Stanford over Maryland

I like the way Maryland is playing right now, but I love what Stanford brings to the court. Maryland will have to bring its best defensive performance of the season to win this one, and even then, the Cardinal have too many weapons.

Creighton over Iowa State

The Bluejays have a believer in me. I believe in their ability to score, and I believe in Jim Flanery’s ability to put together a defensive game plan for Ashley Joens.

NC State over Notre Dame

Elissa Cunane will be the best post on the floor, and her supporting cast is talented enough to deal with the Notre Dame guards.

UConn over Indiana

If — and only if — Bueckers is at her best, and the Huskies have a better offensive performance than they did against UCF. Otherwise, Indiana will make its second-straight Elite Eight.

Louisville over Tennessee (with a caveat)

I ranked Tennessee 16th on this list. I think the Vols have the goods to defeat Louisville, but I don’t have faith that they will play to their potential. We haven’t seen that in at least a month. If Jordan Horston is somehow healthy enough to make an impact, then Tennessee can do it. Count this as me picking Louisville, but with an asterisk.

South Dakota over Michigan

The Coyotes already solved one elite post player in Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith. They can do it again against Naz Hillmon.

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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