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UNLV prepares for exciting, revamped women’s March Madness

UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque thinks that next year they might need a bigger room.

A crowd of a couple hundred people crammed into the Strip View Pavilion at the Thomas & Mack Center to participate in UNLV’s selection show viewing party Sunday.

Fans, friends, family and program supporters looked on as the Lady Rebels were named the No. 13 seed in the Greensboro, North Carolina, region of the NCAA Tournament, with a first-round matchup against No. 4 Arizona.

“Every game we’ve played, it just seems like more people are bringing their friends,” La Rocque said. “Obviously, people are taking notice in town and we feel that support, we really do.”

The Lady Rebels aren’t the only team feeling a boost. This year’s edition of the NCAA Tournament will feature an expanded 68-team field. It’s the first time since 1994 the women’s competition will feature the same number of teams as the men’s.

The NCAA has also announced it will refer to both tournaments as March Madness, a moniker previously reserved only for the men’s competition.

Additionally, this year’s selection show was held on Sunday, just an hour after the men’s bracket was revealed. In the past, the women’s bracket was announced the Monday after Selection Sunday. La Rocque says the improvements have been a long time coming.

“Women’s basketball is a great sport,” she said.

For the players, the improvements feel like a step in the right direction. UNLV junior Essence Booker said she still feels women’s college basketball is overlooked, but thinks the exposure presented this season is a step in the right direction.

Two of the most recognizable players in the country are in UNLV’s bracket: Aliyah Boston of No. 1 South Carolina and Caitlin Clark of No. 2 Iowa.

The No. 1 team in the country since the first week of the season, South Carolina has its own demons to expel. The Gamecocks were upset in the SEC championship game on a late 3-pointer by Kentucky’s Dre’Una Edwards, a Liberty High alum, and are looking to get back to winning ways under coach Dawn Staley.

Reigning champion Stanford holds the No. 1 seed in the Spokane, Washington, region. The Cardinal and coach Tara VanDerveer swept to the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles behind the play of junior Haley Jones and sophomore Cameron Brink. They’ll face tough challenges from Big 12 tournament champions No. 2 Texas and coach Kim Mulkey’s reinvigorated No. 3 Louisiana State.

Mulkey’s former team, Baylor, holds the No. 2 seed in the Wichita, Kansas, region. The Bears won the regular-season Big 12 title but lost the tournament championship game to Texas. However, they’ll have to overcome No. 1 Louisville and sophomore phenom Hailey Van Lith. The Wichita region also contains No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Tennessee, both major threats to advancing out.

The final bracket is the Bridgeport, Connecticut, region. North Carolina State holds the No. 1 seed, but will see a major challenge from perennial title contenders No. 2 Connecticut, especially with the return of sophomore star Paige Bueckers and the emergence of freshman Azzi Fudd.

“We’ve got great coaches. We have amazing young women playing the game,” La Rocque said. “They deserve just as much of the attention and credit as anyone else. I’m happy to see it’s happening.”

The tournament will begin Wednesday with First Four games. The first round will begin Friday, March 18. All the games will be broadcast on ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPNU or ABC.

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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