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The secrets to winning the NCAA Tournament Bracket Challenge

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Washington State was one of many teams to punch their ticket to the 2023 NCAA Tournament this week. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Emily Syverud barely had time to celebrate last year when she received the $150,000 grand prize for winning the inaugural Just Women’s Sports x DICK’S Sporting Goods March Madness Bracket Challenge.

Syverud was on vacation when she heard the news that, out of 17,611 participants, she had submitted the winning bracket for the 2022 NCAA Women’s Tournament. From there, she came home, graduated from medical school at the University of Minnesota, got married, went on her honeymoon and started residency in Minneapolis for internal and emergency medicine.

Since then, she’s had time to exhale and reflect on the significance of her accomplishment, which included the largest prize ever awarded in women’s college basketball.

“It was life-changing,” Syverud, 27, told JWS in a recent conversation. “My husband and I still laugh about it all the time, like, remember when I won $150,000? It’s just such a ridiculous amount of money for anybody, and especially coming out of med school with debt.

“So all of a sudden, having that money just let me relax and enjoy things, and do some more fun things that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have done.”

One of those spontaneous activities happened in December. Unable to use some of the money toward upgrading their honeymoon flights to St. Lucia, Syverud surprised her husband with plane tickets to Switzerland for a ski trip for his 30th birthday.

Of the remaining $150,000, Syverud has donated to Keystone Community Services, a nonprofit in St. Paul, Minn. that runs food shelters, senior programming and after-school youth activities. She’s also set up recurring donations to other organizations she and her husband are passionate about and has paid off some of her student loans.

As the 2023 NCAA Tournament approaches, with the second annual Bracket Challenge featuring the same $150,000 grand prize, Syverud’s friends have been asking her for the secrets to her success.

JWS Bracket Challenge: Sign up for a chance to win $150,000!

As a relatively new fan of women’s college basketball, she likes that she can be an inspiration for others who are looking to get involved for the first time.

“It will sound cheesy, but I just tell them to go read Just Women’s Sports,” Syverud said. “Because that’s literally what I did, and that’s what I do when I’m scrolling on my phone. If I don’t want to be on Instagram for hours, I just go on the JWS website and read articles.”

Syverud has No. 1 South Carolina pegged as the favorite to win it all again this year. She’s high on reigning National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston and the Gamecocks’ depth. But she also has her eye on Caitlin Clark at Iowa and UConn, who played South Carolina close in February won the Big East tournament championship this week despite being ravaged by injuries to their roster.

Other than reading up on the top programs, Syverud advises participants to familiarize themselves with the teams outside of the Power 5 conferences for possible upset bids, and when in doubt, to trust their instincts.

“At the end of the day, it’s like, yes, you need to know some things about basketball and know some things about the teams that are playing,” she said. “But some of it, too, you’ve just gotta go with your gut and trust yourself to make a good choice.”

Emily graduated from medical school and used part of her winnings to take a ski trip to Switzerland. (Courtesy of Emily Syverud)

Still, Syverud doesn’t want to give away all her secrets. She plans to enter the Bracket Challenge again this year and prove her big win wasn’t a fluke.

“My family and friends are all kind of like, ‘Emily, did you really know anything or are you just BSing all of us?’ So I mean, not that I think I’ll win again,” she said, “but just to prove I’m gonna make some good choices in my bracket again and I’m gonna prove to you all that I do know some things about basketball.”

Syverud expects most of her residency class to sign up and fill out brackets in March. For them and everyone else participating this year, she has one final piece of guidance.

“It’s exciting to have the Bracket Challenge, it’s exciting to have such a big prize, but let’s also get eyeballs on the games and show people that people want to watch women’s sports,” she said.

“So fill out your bracket and participate, but then also go watch the games and cheer your teams on.”

Hannah Withiam is the Senior Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.