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Expansion: Women’s NCAA field features inaugural First Four

March 15, 2022 GMT
Florida State head coach Sue Semrau speaks with guard Sammie Puisis (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball quarterfinal game against North Carolina State at the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Florida State head coach Sue Semrau speaks with guard Sammie Puisis (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball quarterfinal game against North Carolina State at the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Florida State head coach Sue Semrau speaks with guard Sammie Puisis (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball quarterfinal game against North Carolina State at the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Florida State head coach Sue Semrau speaks with guard Sammie Puisis (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball quarterfinal game against North Carolina State at the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Florida State head coach Sue Semrau speaks with guard Sammie Puisis (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball quarterfinal game against North Carolina State at the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Florida State coach Sue Semrau has always been a fan of adding teams to the women’s NCAA Tournament. She is thrilled it happened this season, giving her late-developing Seminoles the opportunity to be a part of history.

Florida State (17-13) is one of the schools participating in the inaugural women’s First Four after the NCAA expanded the tournament field to 68 teams, one of the few tangible changes made to address inequities highlighted last year between the men’s and women’s tournaments.

The First Four has been a staple of the men’s NCAA tourney since 2011.

“Had it been 64, I would have been extremely nervous,” Semrau said of her program’s chances of reaching its ninth consecutive tournament.

Instead, she and the other three at-large First Four participants — Missouri State, DePaul and Dayton — and four automatic qualifiers in Longwood, Mount St. Mary’s, Howard and Incarnate Word will play Wednesday and Thursday to advance into the first round.

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That hasn’t always been the case for the women.

Disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments were highlighted last year during the pandemic-altered events, leading the NCAA to make several changes. The enhancements for the women included hotel rooms, dining, training equipment and expanding the tournament field.

Semrau has worked on issues of equality in the college game for years and is gratified to see change.

“Why not?” the coach asked rhetorically about the women’s expanded field.

Unlike the men, who play all their First Four games in Dayton, Ohio, the four women’s games will be held at region sites where the winner’s first-round opponent will play.

For Florida State, that means a trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to take on Missouri State. Not that it mattered to the Seminoles, who seemed like a longshot to be even playing in the NCAAs when they 10-10 in early February. But they won seven of their last 10 to get in.

“Being one of those 68, it just means a lot to us and we know that we’re going to keep working,” Florida State guard Morgan Jones said.

It also means a lot to Longwood.

Even though the Lancers received an automatic bid after winning their first Big South Tournament, they are looking forward for the chance to make more history as one of the teams in the First Four field.

Longwood coach Rebecca Tillett said the town of Farmville, Virginia, gave the team a parade for winning the tournament.

“I can’t imagine what it would be” for an NCAA Tournament win, she chuckled during a phone interview.

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Tillett has heard those who wonder if automatic qualifiers like Longwood should be part of the First Four.

“Those are good questions,” she said. “But we’re happy to be part of it against an evenly matched team.”

Incarnate Word coach Jeff Dow told his players after their First Four assignment came up on TV, “You realize we’re the first of the entire tournament?”

“They were excited about that,” Dow said.

A look at the First Four matchups:

WEDNESDAY’S GAMES

Teams: Incarnate Word (13-16) vs. Howard (20-9).

Where: Columbia, South Carolina.

About Incarnate Word: After winning just five Southland Conference games in the regular season, Incarnate Word won four straight at the league tournament to win its first-ever title. Jaaucklyn Moore leads the team with 17.5 points a game and 42 steals.

About Howard : Howard won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament for the first time in 21 years. Sophomore Destiny Howell leads the Bison at 12.9 points a game. She had a career-best 25 points in the MEAC title game win.

Up Next: Winner will face overall No. 1 seed South Carolina (29-2) in the Greensboro Region

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Teams: DePaul (22-10) vs. Dayton (25-5).

Where: Ames, Iowa

About DePaul: The Blue Demons finished fourth in the Big East. It’s streak of 18 straight NCAA berths ended last year and few thought the Blue Demons would get in. Now, fans can watch one of the country’s top freshmen in forward Aneesah Morrow, who leads the nation in double doubles and rebounds per game.

About Dayton: The Atlantic 10 regular-season champs have held opponents to 54.7 points a game this season and will their hands full with DePaul, whose scoring average of 88.3 points a game leads the country.

Up Next: The winner faces sixth seed Georgia (20-9) in the Greensboro Region.

THURSDAY’S GAMES

Teams: Mount St. Mary’s (16-12) vs. Longwood (21-11)

Where: Raleigh, North Carolina

About Mount St. Mary’s: Won the Northeast Conference tournament crown for a second straight season. Mount St. Mary’s forward Kendall Bresee led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. She averaged 17.4 points a game this season.

About Longwood: Forward Akila Smith led the team in rebounds (7.8 per game) and blocks (93). She was also second on the Lancers with 16.8 points a game.

Up Next: Winner will face North Carolina State (29-3), the top seed of the Bridgeport Region.

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Teams: Florida State (17-13) vs. Missouri State (24-7)

Where: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

About Florida State: The Seminoles strong finish included upsets over ranked opponents and NCAA teams in Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Guard Morgan Jones leads Florida State with 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.

About Missouri State: Finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference. They are led by Abi Jackson, who tops the team with 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds a game.

Up Next: Winner faces sixth seed Ohio State (23-6) in the Spokane Region

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25