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AP Top 25 women's basketball poll: Top contenders who are peaking ahead of March Madness

The first automatic bids are punched for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and Selection Sunday is less than a week away. Now it’s waiting time for much of the field.

A few top teams not only took home a conference trophy, they also put the finishing touches on No. 1 seeds or bids to get into the field. Here are some top contenders who are peaking at the right time.

Championship contenders find ways to win

The March motto is “survive and advance,” even if it’s not pretty. Teams that know how to find ways to win when they’re not at their best are the ones most likely to survive to the final weekend. Staying in the game just long enough to have a chance to win in the final minutes is what will keep you in the bracket.

South Carolina and Iowa both showcased this well in their respective conference tournaments.

Caitlin Clark was not at her best from deep in the Big Ten tournament, going 11-of-42 over Iowa’s three wins. It was her worst three-game stretch of the season. At first, all seemed well. The Hawkeyes' supporting cast stepping up against Michigan is a bright sign for their Final Four chances, but it was more difficult against Nebraska in the title game.

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The NCAA’s leading scorer had four points in the first half and no one else could get going to prevent an 11-point deficit at the half. She rebounded to score 24 in the second half, and with more urgency throughout the roster, Iowa forced overtime. Clark scored six in the 17-point overtime while senior guards Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall stepped up for big-time buckets and stops. Marshall blocked a shot on the perimeter and corralled the ball in the final minute with a four-point lead.

"We just found a way to win, and that speaks to the team that we have, the maturity we have on this group," Clark said. "I just think this team is never out of a game. We have the offensive firepower to be in any game, and we all believed that, we all knew that and we never gave up."

Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes rallied back to beat Nebraska in overtime and win the Big Ten tournament on Sunday. (Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)
Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes rallied to beat Nebraska in overtime and win the Big Ten tournament on Sunday. (Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images) (Aaron J. Thornton via Getty Images)

Iowa isn’t going to win any defensive awards, but the Hawkeyes get stops when they are needed. The Big Ten title win likely locked in a No. 1 seed, which would be their third in program history and first since 1992. It also further boosted this veteran group’s confidence.

South Carolina had its own confidence boosters and hard-fought wins. Against Tennessee, it was the confidence in 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso stepping back to hit a game-winning 3-pointer. It was her first 3 all season and came with South Carolina trailing by two with 1.1 seconds left in the SEC semifinal. If there were one player on the floor that Tennessee wanted to take that shot it was her. That type of X-factor wins tourney games.

They also came up big in the final minutes against LSU before a fight marred the game. Cardoso was ejected for fighting after shoving Flau’jae Johnson and will miss the first-round NCAA tournament game next week.

USC gets it done without JuJu Watkins

The final Pac-12 tournament championship belongs to Southern Cal. It’s the Trojans' second Pac-12 tourney title since it began in 2002 and might be the final push to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Their turnaround over the past decade and ascension with freshman JuJu Watkins is impressive and quicker than expected. USC reached the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 2014. The Trojans went 21-10, finishing with at least 20 wins for the second time in that span. It was expected that Watkins, a five-star recruit out of nearby Sierra Canyon, would give USC another boost, but with title contention a couple seasons away.

The Trojans were picked to finish sixth in the conference preseason poll and instead locked in the No. 2 seed behind Stanford. They’ve taken down the Cardinal in both meetings, in addition to wins over UCLA (two of three times) and future Big Ten foe Ohio State.

The championship was promising for what didn’t happen. Watkins didn’t have to take over the game, scoring nine points on a 2-for-15 day. She’s averaging 27 points per game (second only to Clark) and had yet to score below 15 points in a game. She had one game shooting worse than 20% and never had fewer than five made field goals before Sunday. McKenzie Forbes doubled her 13.5 ppg average with 26 to lead the Trojans. She was named tournament Most Outstanding Player.

Notre Dame proves future is bright

It makes complete sense that the one team not seeded first or second to win a championship Sunday was in the ACC.

No. 4 seed Notre Dame (26-6) won its first ACC tournament championship under head coach Niele Ivey. Their last title was in 2019 under two-time NCAA champion coach Muffet McGraw, who was in the building for the ACC Network on Sunday. Ivey played for and was an assistant coach under McGraw, including during the 2018 national championship season.

Those two seasons after their last tourney title were tough. They went 13-18 in McGraw’s final season before her retirement and would have missed the tournament for the first time since 1995 had it not been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ivey went 10-10 in her first season while dealing with COVID-19 restrictions. Things appeared bleak.

Even amid winning seasons and Sweet 16 berths, the frustrations mounted. Olivia Miles sustained a knee injury in the regular season finale last year and has not played since. The star point guard took a redshirt year.

Notre Dame is also without Cassandre Prosper, Emma Risch, Jenna Brown and Becky Obinma. And forward Kylee Watson sustained a knee injury in the ACC semifinals, so she was unavailable.

“We’ve been thrown into a lot of big fires,” senior forward Maddy Westbeld said. "And we’ve been expected to come out and kind of just stay that poised character. So we’ve been challenged a lot. We step up to it. We’ve been tested, and we continue to just thrive through that and fight through that.”

The Fighting Irish are peaking at the right time and might make it farther than the Sweet 16 for the first time under Ivey. They're on a 5-0 run against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 after their run through the ACC tourney.

The ACC victory likely moved them up into a top-16 overall seed and hosting duties for the first and second rounds. But no matter if they’re an early exit or a surprise darling, the ACC title is further proof the future is bright.

Miles, Sonia Citron and Hannah Hidalgo, a leading candidate for Freshman of the Year honors, comprise one of the most dangerous backcourts in the nation. They’ll be ACC favorites in the future — especially because of the pieces other teams will lose to graduation — with more titles to come.

Yahoo Sports' AP ballot

1. South Carolina (32-0)
2. Iowa (29-4)
3. Southern Cal (26-5)
4. Texas (28-4)
5. UCLA (25-6)
6. Stanford (28-5)
7. Ohio State (25-5)
8. UConn (28-5)
9. Notre Dame (26-6)
10. LSU (28-5)
11. Oregon State (24-7)
12. N.C. State (27-6)
13. Virginia Tech (24-7)
14. Indiana (24-5)
15. Oklahoma (22-8)
16. Kansas State (25-6)
17. Gonzaga (29-2)
18. Baylor (24-7)
19. Utah (22-10)
20. Colorado (22-9)
21. Syracuse (23-7)
22. Louisville (24-9)
23. UNLV (27-2)
24. Princeton (23-4)
25. Duke (20-11)

Week 19 AP rankings

1. South Carolina
2. Iowa
3. USC
4. Stanford
5. Texas
6. UCLA
7. Ohio State
8. LSU
9. Notre Dame
10. UConn
11. NC State
12. Oregon State
13. Virginia Tech
14. Gonzaga
15. Indiana
16. Kansas State
17. Oklahoma
18. Colorado
19. Baylor
20. Utah
21. UNLV
22. Syracuse
23. Creighton
24. Louisville
25. Fairfield