South Carolina, Iowa, USC and Texas are the top seeds in the women’s NCAA Tournament

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Dawn Staley and South Carolina could see some familiar faces on their path to trying to finish off an undefeated season.

The Gamecocks, who are the No. 1 overall seed in the women’s NCAA Tournament, are looking to become the 10th women’s basketball team to go unbeaten for an entire season.

They had a chance last season before falling just short against Caitlin Clark and Iowa in the Final Four. The Hawkeyes received the other No. 1 seed in the Albany Regional. The two teams wouldn’t potentially face off until the national championship game this time. Iowa is a one-seed for the first time since 1992.

USC and star freshman JuJu Watkins earned the Trojans’ first No. 1 seed since 1986 as the top choice in a Portland Regional. Texas earned the fourth No. 1 seed, its first since 2004, and will play Drexel in the other Portland Regional opener. There was debate whether Texas or Stanford would get the fourth No. 1 seed.

“To say we talked about it more than once was an understatement,” said NCAA selection committee Chair Lisa Peterson. “What it came down to was Texas had to play three tournament teams to get to the (Big 12) championship.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley’s squad has been challenged a few times this year, including needing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Kamilla Cardoso to win the semifinals of the SEC Tournament over Tennessee, but has always pulled through. The Gamecocks, who are a No. 1 seed for the fourth consecutive year, will play the winner of Sacred Heart and Presbyterian in the first round of the tournament.

“I always feel good to be the No. 1 overall seed and to be undefeated,” Staley said. “I’m excited because we get a chance to know what our path is to win the national championship and, all great teams, a lot of familiar faces that are in our region. But we have to take it one game at a time and that’s what we’ll do on Friday.”

Cardoso will miss the opening game after getting ejected for fighting in the SEC title game. The Gamecocks would have her back for a potential second-round matchup against either North Carolina or Michigan State. South Carolina beat the Tar Heels earlier in the season.

“Fortunately for us, it’s someone we played without for four games this season,” Staley said. “We know we’re a better basketball team when Kamilla Cardoso is in the lineup.”

Joining the Gamecocks in the Albany Region are No. 2 seed Notre Dame, third-seeded Oregon State and fourth-seeded Indiana. South Carolina opened up its season against the Irish, routing them in Paris.

Clark, who became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer this year, is trying to win her first title. The Hawkeyes open up against the winner of Holy Cross and UT Martin. Joining the Hawkeyes in their region are No. 2 UCLA, defending champion and third-seeded LSU and fourth-seeded Kansas State. The Tigers beat the Hawkeyes for the national championship last year.

The other top teams in USC’s bracket are Ohio State, UConn and Virginia Tech. The Huskies were the last team to go undefeated in a season, running through the 2015-16 season.

Texas could have to contend with No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 North Carolina State and fourth-seeded Gonzaga.

The NCAA changed its format last season and is having two regional sites for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds. Albany, New York, hosts one and Portland, Oregon, the other. Once again the top four teams in each region will host the opening two rounds.

The tournament begins Wednesday with two First Four games. The full madness starts with 16 games Friday and 16 more the next day. The Final Four will be played in Cleveland this year for the first time since 2007. The national semifinals are on April 5, with the championship game two days later.

Tennessee continued its streak of appearing in all 42 NCAA Tournaments. On the other end, Presbyterian, California Baptist, Columbia and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi are all making their first appearance.

The Lions were one of the last four teams in the field. Just outside the field of 68 were Penn State, Washington State, Miami and Villanova.

“There were seven or eight schools we talked about,” Peterson said of the final few spots. “That conversation lasted over two days.”

The Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference both have eight teams in the field. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 each have seven. The Big East has three teams. The West Coast Conference and Ivy League each have two. It’s the second time that the Ivy League has gotten an at-large bid.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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