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The women’s NCAA Tournament is having a big moment that has also been marred by missteps

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A huge disparity between the men’s and women’s weight rooms drew attention to the women’s NCAA Tournament for all the wrong reasons in 2021, starting a conversation about equity that has carried over into today. Then this season brought the mismatched 3-point lines in Portland, Oregon.

The incorrectly drawn lines were among a series of miscues that have been a backdrop to what’s otherwise been a big moment for women’s basketball.

The issues have had little to do with the players on the court or the fans in the stands. There have been record-setting crowds and historic TV ratings, headline-grabbing moments from Caitlin Clark and JuJu Watkins, and the epic Elite Eight duels between Iowa and LSU, and UConn and USC.

It was only two seasons ago that the tournament’s field grew to 68 teams just like the men’s side, and the women were finally able to use the March Madness and Final Four branding that had previously been exclusive to the men.

The exponential growth means that mistakes are possible along the way, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

“The attention generated now on the sport is such that things like this are blown up. Maybe this was happening 10 years ago and nobody paid any attention to it. Maybe nobody was even smart enough to notice or pay attention,” Auriemma said about the court issue. “It certainly doesn’t take away from the performance of these kids and what they did. Sometimes things grow so fast and they explode so quickly that we hurry up and we miss a step.”

The missteps began with Utah’s experience in Idaho, where the team was housed in a hotel some 35 miles from the Utes’ opening-round games in Spokane, Washington. While in Coeur d’Alene, the team said it was the target of racist slurs that were shouted at players as they walked to and from a team dinner.

The players were ultimately moved closer to Spokane, but there were questions about logistics, like why both men’s and women’s games were scheduled in a smaller city like Spokane with fewer hotels that meet the NCAA’s standards for accommodations — while there was also a girls’ volleyball tournament for 800 teams in the city.

Part of the answer lies in how the women’s tournament is set up. The first two rounds are hosted by high-seeded schools, and the sites are announced in the week before the games begin. The cities hosting opening rounds for the men are determined years in advance.

Lynn Holzman, NCAA vice president for women’s basketball, told the AP that the selection committee was set to review the format in 2025, but possibly sooner. That was no consolation for Utah.

“For our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA Tournament environment, it’s messed up,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said.

There were other, less serious embarrassments. In a first-round game between Chattanooga and N.C. State in Raleigh, a referee was pulled at halftime after it was revealed she had an apparent conflict — a master’s degree from Chattanooga.

Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo was forced during a Sweet 16 game against Oregon State to remove her nose piercing that she had played with all season. It was unclear why she wasn’t informed about a rule banning the piercing before the game.

“It’s tough because you know I was on a roll and having to sit out for five minutes because of a nose ring is BS,” she said.

The biggest lapse was the two different 3-point lines on the floor in Portland. One side’s arc was about 9 inches short of regulation at its apex, a mistake by the contractor that makes the courts used throughout March Madness.

“For an error of that magnitude to overshadow what has been an incredible two weekends of basketball featuring sensational teams and incredible individual performances is unacceptable and extremely upsetting,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.

Back in 2021, Oregon’s Sedona Price caused a stir when she posted a video that went viral on social medial showing the inequity between the men’s and women’s weight rooms for the NCAA Tournament. The men’s gym was fully equipped. The women’s had a small set of barbells.

The weight rooms were equalized by the NCAA. The 3-point line was also quickly addressed once it was discovered — but not until after five tournament games had been played on the court.

NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham Wright said in a statement that the organization “acted immediately to address isolated incidents that in no way affected the amazing accomplishments of the women competing in this tournament.”

It’s likely the NCAA will continue to face such issues as the women’s game continues to grow. Clark and Iowa played the most-watched women’s college basketball game on record. Iowa’s 94-87 victory over LSU on Monday night averaged 12.3 million viewers on ESPN, according to Nielsen. More viewing records will likely fall with the Final Four this weekend including a matchup between Clark and Paige Bueckers.

And indeed there are concerns about the super regional format. While the men’s tournament is divided into four regional locations, the women’s teams are lumped into two on opposite sides of the country.

With so many teams at one location, scheduling for practices and locker rooms becomes a challenge. Some teams, like UCLA and Oregon State, landed in Albany, while UConn was in Portland, making it more difficult for fans to attend.

Auriemma was blunt.

“With eight teams,” he said, “it’s kind of a mess.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

By ANNE M. PETERSON
AP Sports Writer

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