Women’s Final Four picks: Can Caitlin Clark, Iowa end South Carolina’s perfect season?
DALLAS — There hasn’t been much debate on the best team throughout the 2022-23 women’s college basketball season. South Carolina has been the wire-to-wire No. 1, is the defending champion and has an undefeated 36-0 record entering Friday’s women’s Final Four.
But there’s been plenty of debate on the nation’s best player, with two totally different types of players leading the conversation. South Carolina’s 6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston is the top post player and the anchor of the Gamecocks’ defense. Iowa‘s Caitlin Clark, who has won the Naismith, Wade Trophy and AP player of the year awards in the past two days, is the college game’s best point guard and 3-point threat.
Both players are likely to be staples in the WNBA over the next decade or more, but this weekend in Dallas their paths cross in a dream matchup for the women’s Final Four. Boston’s Gamecocks meet Clark’s Hawkeyes in the second semifinal Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), following the Virginia Tech–LSU semifinal (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
They play completely different positions, so it’s hard to compare Boston and Clark, other than to say they’re the stars of their respective teams.
“I do follow them quite a bit,” Clark said of watching the Gamecocks. “I think what Coach Staley has been able to build is absolutely tremendous, the dominance they display. I’m a fan of theirs; what they’ve done for the game, and also the way South Carolina fans support their team. I love that it’s very similar to the way our fans are, and that’s really going to help grow our game more.”
With South Carolina and Virginia Tech as No. 1 seeds, Iowa as a No. 2 and LSU a No. 3, there isn’t a big underdog in the Final Four — even if the other teams seem that way compared to favorite South Carolina because of the Gamecocks’ depth and defense. They are trying to become the 10th women’s team to go undefeated in the NCAA era and win their program’s third NCAA title. The first came here in Dallas in 2017, and now they could make the confetti fall again at American Airlines Center.
First, they will try to slow down Iowa’s red-hot offense in a matchup everyone has wanted to see.
“You couldn’t ask for a better stage for this game to take place on,” Clark said.
ESPN’s Andrea Adelson, Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel look at what’s in store in Friday’s national semifinals and predict which teams will meet in Sunday’s title game (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
What problems will South Carolina’s defense pose for Caitlin Clark?
Is Caitlin Clark enough for Iowa to take down South Carolina?
Monica McNutt talks Caitlin Clark’s game ahead of the biggest challenge for Iowa to date.
Creme: Clark has spent her career getting bumped around and has absorbed it brilliantly, but nothing prepares a player for South Carolina’s brand of defense. The Gamecocks excel at moving ball handlers off their intended path. Having an angle to the basket or to make a pass is a fundamental part of Clark’s game. This will be a huge test. Can Clark get to the spots on the floor she wants, or will Brea Beal and Zia Cooke be able to force her elsewhere? It’s important to remember this is a 40-minute pursuit. The Gamecocks generally won’t accomplish all of their goals with Clark early. But they are so good at sticking to the plan and eventually imposing their will. UCLA and UConn felt that in the regular season. South Florida and Maryland experienced the same in the tournament. How Clark and Iowa can survive the usual South Carolina second- and third-quarter clamp-down will likely determine the outcome.
Adelson: I asked Beal how she felt the Gamecocks’ physicality would affect Clark in particular during Thursday’s open locker room session. She told me: “We’re a big team. We’re a long team. I definitely think our ability to be dominant in the post definitely puts us above the bar. Just starting there, and our guards just being very direct, getting to the rim — just playing our basketball definitely will help us.” Forward Victaria Saxton echoed those comments, saying the Gamecocks would have to rely on their team defense to win. “We’re not going to change for any one person. Playing physical, of course, so that’s part of who we are, and that’s who we’re going to be. We’re going to be ourselves.”
The biggest challenge for Iowa could be South Carolina’s depth. It’s not just the starting five who can make highlight plays on defense. The Gamecocks’ bench comes at their opponents in waves.
Voepel: These are both teams with very experienced starting lineups who are accustomed to imposing their will in games: South Carolina on the defensive end and Iowa on offense. The only games the Hawkeyes have lost in the past two months were at Indiana and at Maryland; both are good defensive teams but not at the level of South Carolina’s defense.
Clark has always been a very good passer, but she has made herself elite at that aspect — we’re talking pro-level elite. So when she’s not hurting teams by putting the ball in the basket herself, she is setting up someone else. But as Andrea and Charlie said, the Gamecocks’ length and quickness forces opponents to try to be perfect. South Carolina makes even relatively simple plays difficult to execute.
Philippou: Because of the South Carolina defensive strengths others detailed, Clark’s — and Iowa’s — best shot at getting going will be if they can get into transition. Playing any team’s half-court defense can be a pain, but especially a unit as disciplined and reliable as South Carolina’s. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, excel and actually thrive in getting down the floor, including oftentimes when they’re inbounding the ball.
Whether Clark & Co. can get going in transition, or if they’ll be stymied, will depend on how Iowa does on the other end of the floor. If South Carolina is making shots or easily able to gather its own misses, it will work against the Hawkeyes’ ability to dictate the pace of the game. If Iowa can get stops and otherwise hold its own on the defensive glass, it can grab it and go. This battle favors the Gamecocks, who rebound 48.7% of their misses (first in the country per Her Hoop Stats), though the Hawkeyes manage to get 75% of rebounds on the defensive end (12th in the country).
How will Angel Reese be successful against Virginia Tech’s size inside?
Sorensen says Hokies’ experience will challenge LSU
SEC Now analyst Steffi Sorensen breaks down the 3-seed Tigers’ Final Four semifinal against 1-seed Virginia Tech’s senior-laden squad.
Philippou: Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks thought Tennessee, which the Hokies faced in early December and in the Sweet 16, might be the closest comparison to LSU that Tech has faced. “Very similar styles and what they do,” he said Thursday. “They’re very reliant on their athleticism, their length, their ability to rebound the basketball. So I think both of those games have prepared us.” When asked about Reese specifically, he emphasized, “We’re not going to shut her down. We don’t expect to do that. But we just want to make it tough for her and put her in situations where she’s not comfortable.”
One of Reese’s least impactful games of the season came against South Carolina, when the Gamecocks limited her to four rebounds (zero on the offensive end). The Hokies don’t have the tandem of Boston and Kamilla Cardoso to throw out there, but can they still manage to keep the LSU star off the glass? That responsibility falls on not just center Elizabeth Kitley, but Taylor Soule and, off the bench, D’asia Gregg.
Creme: Reese was listed as a “guard/forward” on the roster in her two seasons at Maryland. Those designations generally hold no real significance, but in this case it shows how versatile Reese is. Her ability to face up, shoot a 15-footer and handle the ball could be her best strategy. Reese might be better from the elbow than the low post anyway.
Kitley is hardly beholden to the post, either, but if Reese can get the Virginia Tech center moving laterally and defending drives to the basket, Reese would be playing to her strengths. Then there is Reese’s relentlessness on the glass, which has been so much a part of her nation’s-best 6.5 offensive rebounds per game. Short of early foul trouble, expect Reese to be in attack mode the entire game.
Adelson: Charlie said it best: Reese’s versatility is a huge asset. But her presence inside means more than just getting shots in the paint. In LSU’s Elite Eight game against Miami, Reese was having an off night with her easy looks (she was 3-of-15 from the field). But she ended up drawing her fair share of fouls — and her presence on the free throw line was a huge difference. Despite her “off night,” Reese scored 13 points after going 7-of-10 from the free throw line. So Virginia Tech will have to find a way to stay disciplined, too, when the Hokies see Reese with the ball in her hands.
Voepel: LSU coach Kim Mulkey said Reese has seen every kind of defense this season. While the Tigers respect Kitley and the Hokies, they aren’t going to radically change how they approach their post game.
“Angel has been double-teamed. She is outstanding at passing out of the double-team and finding the open player,” Mulkey said. “She has been guarded one-on-one by the bigger players. Angel is not a true back-to-the-basket player. She likes to take you off the dribble. Sometimes she tries to do too much, and I just tell her to relax. We’ll find you on ball reversal.
“Angel figures out a way to get in there and battle, rebound. She gets a lot of her own misses, and she just is strong.”
In addition to an NCAA title, what would winning on this stage mean for each team?
Voepel: It’s been 30 years since Iowa was in the Final Four, which was nine years before Clark was born. But the Iowa native knows her history. The 1992-93 school year was a tragic one for Iowa athletics. Then-women’s coach C. Vivian Stringer’s husband, Bill, died of a heart attack just before Thanksgiving. In January, popular Iowa men’s hoops player Chris Street was killed in a car accident. Caitlin has heard these stories; her father, Brent Clark, went to the same high school as Street in Indianola, Iowa. When Stringer’s Hawkeyes lost by one point in overtime to Ohio State in the 1993 national semifinals, it was a disappointment on top of a lot of grief.
Iowa has had many good teams since then, including an Elite Eight trip in 2019 behind standout center Megan Gustafson. But this season’s team has been riding a wave of joy most of the season, and is on an eight-game winning streak started by Clark’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Indiana on Feb. 26. These Hawkeyes have given a lift to their program, their state, the Big Ten and women’s hoops in general. They want to win the championship, of course, but reaching the Final Four is a significant step in linking past and present success at Iowa.
Adelson on South Carolina: This would be historic in so many ways for a program that has become the standard-bearer in women’s college basketball. The Gamecocks would be the first team to repeat as national champions since UConn won four in a row from 2013 to 2016. They would finish the first perfect season in school history — becoming the 10th team (and fifth different program) to accomplish the feat. Their senior class would leave behind a legacy that only programs like UConn, Stanford and Tennessee can claim: three straight national championship game appearances, and a potential fourth that they never got a chance to reach because COVID-19 canceled the 2020 NCAA tournament.
Dawn Staley said before her team’s Sweet 16 appearance: “I don’t see us as a UConn or Tennessee. I mean, I don’t see us as that because they are the traditionally rich powerhouses of our game.” Guess what? South Carolina is the “newer” rich powerhouse. Staley has established that tradition; the championships validate it.
Philippou on Virginia Tech: No matter how this weekend pans out, the Hokies have established themselves as a program that has arrived, no longer an afterthought in the ACC. Brooks brought this team back to relevance, after the Hokies missed the NCAA tournament from 2007 to 2020, behind a perfect combination of program stalwarts (see: Kitley, Georgia Amoore) and transfers who have fit in seamlessly (see: Soule, Gregg, Kayana Traylor). Some predicted they’d lose prior to the Final Four even though they were a No. 1 seed, but here they are over Tennessee and Ohio State.
“They’re so confident in themselves, ‘OK, we’re going to prove ourselves right. We know how good we are. We know we belong here. … We beat a lot of really good basketball teams convincingly,'” Brooks said Thursday. “So as a result, being here is not a surprise. We’re very fortunate, we understand that it takes a lot of hard work and some luck, but we expect to be here.”
Internally, the Hokies hope and expect to win. But maybe without that same external pressure from tradition other teams might feel, they’re able to play more freely, while leaning on their chemistry and maturity, to step up and perform when the lights are brightest.
Creme on LSU: As the Tigers kept advancing in the NCAA tournament, a constant refrain was that this kind of success was expected for Kim Mulkey at LSU, just not this soon. Winning a national championship in just her second year in Baton Rouge would not only raise the level of Mulkey’s legacy that much higher, but also signal to the rest of the country that the Tigers are back now. Even getting to a championship game, something the program has never done, would say plenty, much like when South Carolina made its first title game in 2015. In the Gamecocks’ case it was about an arrival. In LSU’s case it is about a rebirth.
Final Four picks: Which teams will advance to Sunday’s title game?
Staley: ‘The juice is in winning the national title’
South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, LSU’s Kim Mulkey indicate that they are well aware of the history each of their teams is chasing at the Final Four.
LSU or Virginia Tech?
Adelson: Virginia Tech. I really was a hard lean on LSU because the Tigers have a veteran coach who has won championships. But this team looked disjointed and out of sync on offense against both Utah and Miami in the regional round, while Virginia Tech has looked as if it is in complete command. I just like the way Virginia Tech is playing right now.
Creme: Virginia Tech. This one feels like a toss-up. The surprise would be if the outcome is not in doubt with 5 minutes to go. LSU’s struggles on offense in the regionals might be too much to overcome against the Hokies, who have more shot-makers. Alexis Morris has been clutch, but LSU will need someone else to contribute in that area. Brooks can look to Amoore, Cayla King or Kayana Traylor to deliver a jumper in crunch time. Kim Mulkey’s options are more limited, and that will be the difference.
Philippou: Virginia Tech. The Amoore-Kitley tandem will be too much for LSU to overcome. And even if those two get off to slow starts, that’s where King, Traylor and Soule can step up. While the Tigers have had to rely on their defense to get this far, the Hokies have been able to find success on both ends in this tournament. Behind a litany of step-back 3s from Aussie legend Amoore, in front of her parents who traveled 16 hours from Australia to watch her, Final Four first-timer Virginia Tech will advance to its first NCAA championship game.
Voepel: LSU. Both teams’ stars could come through for them in a way that will highlight their role players. Which means someone such as forward LaDazhia Williams, who was so good in the Tigers’ Sweet 16 win over Utah, could be a factor. Mulkey said Thursday her greater experience with big games in the NCAA tournament — which literally goes back to her playing in the first NCAA championship game in 1982 — doesn’t necessarily have an impact on the outcome. But she might be selling herself short; Mulkey has been in games of this magnitude many times before.
Iowa or South Carolina?
Adelson: South Carolina. It’s hard to go against the team that has been there, done that, on this stage with its physicality and size. The Gamecocks simply wear their opponents down with defense. But let’s also not forget this team has the ability to hit some shots from 3 when challenged. And there really might be something to the Gamecocks being tired of hearing what a great scorer Clark has been through the length of the season.
Creme: South Carolina. The Gamecocks are just bigger, stronger and more relentless. They have an uncanny ability to wear down teams and eventually impose their rebounding dominance. Iowa will have a tough time over 40 minutes managing South Carolina’s size inside. The Gamecocks aren’t a great deep-shooting team, and if the jump shots aren’t falling, the Hawkeyes would have an opening to the upset — but only if South Carolina doesn’t rebound nearly half of those misses like it has all season.
Philippou: South Carolina. The Hawkeyes faced strong defenses on their way to Dallas, but none as stellar as the Gamecocks’. With South Carolina’s size inside and ability to dominate the glass — and, just as crucially, its experience being on this stage before — Dawn Staley’s squad will control this matchup and handily advance to a second consecutive title game appearance.
Voepel: South Carolina. The entire starting five for the Gamecocks could be having an off night, but then their second team could step in with little or no drop-off in play. The Gamecocks are also eager to face Clark because they like challenges. And this close to perfection, they don’t seem likely to trip up before the finish line.
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