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NCAA Women's Tournaments And The Upcoming Final Four

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This year's NCAA women's basketball tournament has already been a blockbuster, and there is more to come. The final four kicks off tomorrow in San Antonio, when South Carolina takes on Stanford and Arizona faces off against UConn. It is the capper on a tournament that started with a fiasco. The NCAA was called out and eventually apologized for disparities between the facilities at the women's tournament and the men's tournament played in Indiana. Instead of a gleaming weight room, the women initially got a small rack of dumbbells.

Mechelle Voepel is a staff writer for ESPN, and she has been covering the women's tournament and joins us now. Welcome.

MECHELLE VOEPEL: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. Well, can you just start out by talking about how competitive this tournament has been so far?

VOEPEL: This was a season where we really expected that. We had a lot of great seniors from last season leave, and three of the top juniors were draft-eligible for the WNBA, so they left. So there was a little bit of a void in terms of who are going to be the greatest players, who's going to step forward, and we've had a lot of people do that. We've had a lot of teams do that. And we have a first-timer in the final four in Arizona, who's coached by an alum of the team. So that makes it exciting.

CHANG: There was another cool milestone this year. This is the first time two teams led by Black women head coaches are in the final four. We have South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and Arizona coach Adia Barnes. Can you talk about these coaches and what their arrival in the final four means for the game?

VOEPEL: I started covering women's basketball in 1984, and I would say for the first decade of my career, I don't think I ever heard a Black player tell me she wanted to be a head coach because she had so few role models. Carolyn Peck was the first Black woman to win a national championship in '99, and that started to crack the door open. Dawn Staley was the second Black woman to win an NCAA championship in women's basketball in 2017. So what we're seeing here is something that - let's be honest - it should have happened decades ago.

CHANG: Well, you know, as we mentioned, before the men's and women's tournament started, there were these videos that went viral, showing the weight rooms provided for the men and the much more humble facility for the women. You were in San Antonio. What did you hear from the players and the coaches at the time, as they were taking in this huge disparity between the facilities?

VOEPEL: The NCAA just whiffed on this, and they've admitted that. I think it made everybody see in real time what those of us who've covered the sport for a long time have seen over decades. So as embarrassing as it was, sometimes it takes a public embarrassment that really shows an inequity. And it's something that really you can't make excuses for. It shouldn't happen. It takes that to change the system.

CHANG: Well, who do you have cutting down the nets in this tournament and taking a trophy home?

VOEPEL: I'm picking Stanford. They last won in 1992. I think it may be a repeat of Stanford-UConn. There will be a massive celebration by Cardinal fans all across the country if that happens. However, UConn's got Paige Bueckers, the national player of the year as a freshman. So if that's the matchup, it's going to be tough. I could see any of them winning it. I think Stanford's going to win it.

CHANG: Mechelle Voepel is a staff writer for ESPN. Thank you so much for joining us today.

VOEPEL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.