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Jordan Guskey | NCAA.com | January 30, 2019

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No team has entered a Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament seeded fourth or lower in its region and won a title.

Some battled their way to the Final Four. Others journeyed as far as the national championship game. But each and every one of their seasons ended in defeat.

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Flip through the 37-year history of the tournament dating back to 1982, and you’ll find No. 1 seeds can claim 28 championships, No. 2 seeds seven and No. 3 seeds two. Baylor, Connecticut, South Carolina and Notre Dame have combined to deliver seven-straight No. 1-seed titles since the last No. 2 seed, Texas A&M, won in 2011, and no team seeded third has won since the 1997 Tennessee Lady Volunteers.

No. 7 Washington came close in 2016, as did No. 4 Syracuse. But after Syracuse beat Washington by 21 in the Final Four the Orange lost by 31 to Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut Huskies.

That said, if 2019 is the year the streak runs its course, any of these five unranked programs could be the reason why:

UCF

UCF is off to a 17-3 start this season with a 6-1 record in the American Athletic Conference. The Knights own victories against Villanova (13-7) and Cincinnati (13-7), and while they blew a fourth-quarter lead against now-No. 18 Syracuse (16-4) and lost by 36 on the road against now-No. 2 UConn (18-1), they do have a chance at redemption against the Huskies Feb. 17 at home. UCF is 7-0 at home this season.

What makes the Knights dangerous is their defense, which ranks 11th in the nation with an average of just 54.8 points allowed per game. Only three teams have scored more than 60 points against UCF, and the Knights average 63.8 points per game. UCF’s Korneila Wright leads the team with 18.2 points per game and is the only player averaging double figures, but coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has developed a balanced offense around her with players capable of scoring in bunches if needed.

The Knights haven’t advanced to the NCAA Tournament since the 2010-11 season, but have reached the WNIT in back-to-back years after five-straight losing seasons.

New Mexico

New Mexico has spent more than half its season playing close contests decided by single digits, and while losses by three points at home against Auburn (15-5) and nine points on the road against UNLV (6-12) might still sting, the Lobos are 17-2 and 7-1 in Mountain West play. The Lobos sit atop their conference and can boast of wins against Houston (10-9), Stephen F. Austin (15-3) and New Mexico State (13-6). Plenty of opportunities remain, too, against more high-profile Mountain West opponents. 

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New Mexico leads its conference with a 75.8-point scoring average and a scoring margin of plus-13.6, and three different Lobos average more than 14 points per game. Opponents shoot just 36 percent from the field and 26.6 percent on 3s, and if New Mexico can improve on its 41.4-percent shooting mark the team’s average margin of victory will only increase.

This would be the program’s first trip back to the NCAA Tournament since the 2007-08 season.

Clemson

Clemson rebounded from a 2-3 start to the season that saw it lose three consecutive games against now-No. 16 South Carolina (14-5), Alabama (11-10) and Tennessee (13-7) and is inching closer to securing an at-large bid with its 14-6 record. The Tigers are 5-2 in conference play and — while they lost by just three to an undefeated NC State (20-0) squad last week — still have quality wins against Miami (18-4) and a Florida State (17-3) team that’s No. 24 in the latest AP poll. 

Whether or not Clemson can compete with No. 3 Louisville (19-1) or No. 5 Notre Dame (19-2) this week, and teams of their caliber in the NCAA tournament, will come down to the Tigers’ ability to improve their shooting and scoring margin. Kobi Thornton leads three scorers in double figures with 15.6 points per game, but Clemson averages just 70.2 points per game. And allowing 63.8 per contest leaves the Tigers 11th in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring margin.

Take Clemson’s defensive performance against NC State and marry it with the offensive performances it had against Syracuse and Miami and the Tigers are a hard out come tournament time. The last time Clemson played in the NCAA Tournament was the 2001-02 season.

Drake

Drake might still be ranked if not for a three-game losing streak in December against South Dakota State (15-6), Iowa State (16-5) and Iowa (16-4) — the latter two of three are ranked 23rd and 13th, respectively — in games decided by nine points or less. The Bulldogs are 15-4, the fourth loss coming against Notre Dame, with wins against two top-20 squads in South Carolina and Rutgers (16-4) and a 7-0 mark in the Missouri Valley Conference. And while they allow 67.8 points per game they average 80.3, a mark that’s good for 14th in the country. 

Sara Rhine leads the team in scoring with 19.3 points per game and Becca Hittner is close behind with 18.2 points per game. If the Bulldogs can take care of the ball and cut down their average of nearly 17 turnovers per game opponents may not have enough chances to keep up.

The past two seasons Drake has exited the NCAA Tournament early with first-round losses.

South Dakota

Three losses away from home, all by eight points or less against Drake, Denver (12-9) and an Indiana (16-5) team that could make a run of its own come March are all the only reasons South Dakota isn’t undefeated. The Coyotes are 19-3 with quality wins against No. 23 Iowa State and Missouri (16-6), and have the talent to score as much as 112 and hold teams to as little as 40. 

Led by Ciara Duffy’s 15 points per game, South Dakota averages 77.5 points per contest and a scoring margin of plus-18.5. The Coyotes also own a plus-8.3 average in rebounding, too, and have held their opponents to a less than stellar 38.1 percent shooting clip. 

South Dakota won the WNIT three seasons ago and made its last appearance in the NCAA Tournament during the 2013-14 season.

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