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Injuries change dynamic heading into women’s March Madness

Athletes and coaches aren’t the only ones putting in extra time this week to help their teams get ready for the NCAA Tournament.

Doctors and trainers are playing a big role, with injuries leaving question marks on several top teams. A look at which programs could have their championship dreams impacted by missing or returning players this March:

NOTRE DAME

The Fighting Irish (25-5) won the ACC regular-season title but lost star Olivia Miles to a right knee injury in their Feb. 26 win over Louisville. Miles, who was averaging 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists, missed both of her team’s games in the ACC Tournament and her return is uncertain.

The No. 3-seeded Notre Dame, which faces Southern Utah (23-9) in the opening round, already had lost fifth-year guard Dara Mabrey to a torn ACL and tibial plateau fracture in her right knee during a Jan. 22 win over Virginia.

Notre Dame’s tournament hopes may well depend on when Miles can return and how effective she can be once she does.

“She’s gonna be with the doctors a little bit more this week, but she is progressing,” coach Niele Ivey told reporters on Sunday.

UCONN

UConn’s prospects to earn a 15th straight trip to the Final Four suffered a major blow before the season began when national player of the year Paige Bueckers and incoming freshman Ice Brady both went down with season-ending knee injuries.

The No. 2-seeded Huskies (29-5) then lost leading scorer Azzi Fudd for 22 games with two separate knee injuries and guard Caroline Ducharme for 13 games with a concussion. Only two Huskies, Lou Lopez Senechal and Aaliyah Edwards, have played every game this season.

Fudd, who was averaging just under 18 points before being hurt, and Ducharme, a 3-point threat, both returned to help the Huskies cruise through the Big East Tournament, though neither was in top form: Fudd averaged just 8.3 points over the three games and Ducharme scored a total of four points.

UConn, which faces Vermont (25-6) on Saturday, hopes that like last year, when Bueckers returned from a knee injury just before the postseason, the return of Ducharme and Fudd can help propel the Huskies back into title contention.

IOWA STATE

The Cyclones (22-9) won the Big 12 Tournament despite being without injured post player Stephanie Soares. The 6-foot-6 forward tore the ACL in her left knee during a Jan. 8 loss to Oklahoma.

Soares, twice the NAIA player of the year before transferring from Master’s University, had been averaging 14.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game through 13 games.

Coach Bill Fennelly is hoping the NCAA will give Soares an extra year for Iowa State.

In the meantime, the fifth-seeded Cyclones will have to rely on one of the nation’s top players, Ashley Joens, to help them make it to Texas for the Final Four. Joens, a 3,000-point scorer for her career, had 28 points and 10 rebounds in Iowa State’s win over Texas for the league title.

The Cyclones play Toledo (28-4) in the opening round.

TEXAS

The Big 12 regular-season champion Longhorns (25-9) are another team looking to bounce back from a slew of injuries.

Players who were part of the Texas rotation missed a total of 45 regular-season games. The biggest loss came when 6-foot-1 forward Aaliyah Moore went down with an ACL tear on Dec. 13. The sophomore had started every game before the injury, averaging 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds.

Sonya Morris (quad) and Ndjakalenga Mwenentanda (ankle) also are banged up, but coach Vic Shafer expects to have both of them back when the No. 4 seed takes on East Carolina (23-9) in the opening round.

Forward Taylor Jones is back from a lower-body injury that kept the Oregon State transfer out for nine games late in the season. She also missed 21 games with a shoulder injury last year for the Beavers.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE

North Carolina State (20-11) is a No. 7 seed after losing to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament.

The Wolfpack were missing guard Diamond Johnson, who has been bothered by a right ankle injury that also cost her seven regular-season games. Johnson, who leads the Wolfpack in scoring (12.3 points) and assists (3.5 per game), hasn’t played since Feb. 16.

She was held out to give her ankle more time to heal and could be back for the opening-round game against Ivy League champion Princeton (23-5).

INDIANA

The top-seeded Hoosiers may have to play at least their first weekend of the tournament without reserve forward Kiandra Browne, who suffered a hip injury in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. Browne had to leave the floor in a wheelchair.

The Hoosiers ended up losing in the semifinals to Ohio State, blowing a 24-point halftime lead.

The 6-foot-2 forward has not been a big part of Indiana’s success this year. A thumb injury limited her to just 10 minutes in seven games this year after appearing in 30 a year ago.

Coach Teri Moren told reporters on Sunday that Browne’s injury is to the hip muscles and may take a “couple of weeks” to heal.

___

AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

By PAT EATON-ROBB
AP Sports Writer

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