The 2023 women’s NCAA tournament is the gift that keeps on giving. So often the potential dream matchups so many envision on Selection Sunday never materialize.
This year, the bracket delivered. The Iowa-South Carolina national semifinal is the ultimate contrast in styles and gets its stage Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the Final Four in Dallas.
Offense vs. defense. Caitlin Clark vs. Aliyah Boston. One team realizing a dream vs. another looking to make history.
Iowa is the highest-scoring team in the country. South Carolina allows the fewest points. And while Boston, the Gamecocks’ 6-foot-5 All-American forward, and Clark, the Hawkeyes’ point guard fresh off a 41-point triple-double, won’t be matched up against one another, having the presumptive national player of the year front-runner this season (Clark) on the same floor with last year’s winner (Boston) seems a fitting way to conclude a two-year debate about who is the better player.
The Gamecocks aren’t just trying to beat Iowa, Virginia Tech or LSU at the Final Four. They are vying to become the 10th team to complete a perfect season and fourth program to win back-to-back championships. Staley’s super-hyped recruiting class of 2019 has lived up to the billing in every way. Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere are in their third consecutive Final Four and were part of the No. 1 team in the country before the 2020 tournament was canceled. Will this be their perfect send-off?
On the other side of the bracket, the Tigers and Hokies bring plenty of star power to Dallas, too. Angel Reese substantiated her transfer from Maryland to LSU by leading the Tigers to their first Final Four since 2008. Her decision to go to Baton Rouge accelerated Kim Mulkey’s rebuilding program. Two years after she left Baylor, Mulkey is in her fifth Final Four and is just the fourth women’s coach to do it with multiple programs (Marianne Stanley, C. Vivian Stringer and Gary Blair).
Coach Kenny Brooks and the Hokies are in their first Final Four, and in center Elizabeth Kitley and point guard Georgia Amoore bring their own star duo to Dallas. Kitley is a two-time ACC player of the year, and Amoore has captured this entire tournament with her deep shooting and affable personality. The Kitley-Reese matchup in the post will have more to do with the outcome in the first game Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) than anything Boston and Clark do directly against each other in the nightcap.
Here’s a look at how all four teams could raise a championship trophy Sunday night at American Airlines Center.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Cooke, Boston express excitement for the Final Four
After defeating 2-seed Maryland in the Elite Eight, Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke describe the elation of 1-seed South Carolina punching its ticket to the Final Four.
Reason to be excited: The list isn’t endless, but it’s close. The Gamecocks might have the best defense the sport has ever seen. They lead the country in points allowed, opponents’ field goal percentage and blocked shots. Offensively, even if South Carolina isn’t always efficient, its physical prowess, intelligence and attention to detail help create extra chances. With the 6-foot-5 Boston and 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso leading way, South Carolina rebounds nearly half its missed shots. And an underrated facet to the Gamecocks’ game: They take care of the ball. They rank fourth in the country in turnover rate. Dawn Staley has a bench that has consistently produced all season and was good enough to score a combined 50 points in the regionals.
Reason to be concerned: With only five teams even coming within single digits of South Carolina this season, it really isn’t much to worry about, but the Gamecocks are still a below-average shooting team. While they improved from last year when they won the national championship, the Gamecocks rank 354th in 3-point rate and 217th in 3-pointers made. With Cooke shooting with confidence and Beal picking the right opportunities, South Carolina made 6 of 15 against Maryland. If they duplicate that in Dallas, the Gamecocks will be cutting down the nets again.
The Gamecocks will win if …: … they play their A-game. South Carolina’s best is unmatched. Even if the Gamecocks produce a B-plus, they might walk away with another title. The focus hasn’t wavered all season, so there is no reason to believe it would at the precipice of an undefeated season. Iowa presents an interesting and unique challenge, but if the Gamecocks do what they do best at a high level, no team in the country beats them.
Caitlin Clark details how Iowa can beat South Carolina
Caitlin Clark joins First Take to discuss her mindset going into Iowa’s matchup against South Carolina in the NCAA Final Four.
Reason to be excited: Watching Clark play is exhilarating. Imagine what playing alongside her must be like. And to do it for 90 games together, as Clark, Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin, McKenna Warnock and Monika Czinano have. Clark’s numbers just keep getting more astounding: the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA tournament history; tournament averages of 30.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 11 assists per game; shooting 51.3% on the season and 48.7% in the tournament; leading the country in assists for a second consecutive season. But the other four starters aren’t just watching Clark work. Marshall has made half of her 46 3-point attempts in the postseason. Czinano is shooting 71.8% from the field in the tournament. Warnock has scored 14, 12 and 17 points in the past three games. It does all start with Clark, but this is a complete offense with high-percentage shooters at every position. That’s why the Hawkeyes led the nation in scoring.
Reason to be concerned: While it has been better this season, the Hawkeyes’ defense is still flawed. They don’t have a rim protector and give up nearly 71 points per game, which ranks 306th in the country. Iowa has been opportunistic at times, though. The 11 steals against Louisville were significant. Iowa faced all defense-first teams in the Seattle 4 Regional, and while South Carolina still qualifies as such, the Gamecocks have the second-rated offense in the country, according to HerHoopStats.com, and are tops in points per possession.
The Hawkeyes will win if …: … they can hold their own on the glass. South Carolina is the best rebounding team in the country. LSU is second in rebound rate. Virginia Tech is the fifth best on the defensive glass. Statistically, Iowa is not in that class. However, the Hawkeyes are a solid defensive rebounding team, and that’s the side that matters most. Limiting the Gamecocks’ second chances and not wearing down from their relentless pursuit of the ball will be paramount for an Iowa victory in the semifinals. Hannah Stuelke, a 6-2 freshman, could be as important as she has been all season to the Hawkeyes’ fortunes.
Reese posts SEC record as LSU tops Miami in Elite Eight
Angel Reese records an SEC single-season record 32nd double-double as the 3-seed Tigers handle the 9-seed Hurricanes 54-42 to advance to the Final Four.
Reason to be excited: If it’s not Mulkey’s wardrobe choices then it would have to be the play of Alexis Morris. Reese has been the one constant all season, but the Tigers wouldn’t have made it this far without giving her some help. Morris has been the most reliable No. 2. She was the best player on the floor against Miami in the regional final with 22 points, and Morris’ four clutch free throws late against Utah were the difference. The fifth-year senior’s career began playing for Mulkey at Baylor. After stops at Rutgers and Texas A&M, her basketball life has come full circle with a chance for a national championship.
Reason to be concerned: LSU hasn’t reached 70 points in the tournament since its opener, and its offense has gotten less productive with each round. The Tigers have proven how well they defend by holding Michigan and Miami to 42 points each, but they won’t get away with the 54 they scored against Miami when they face Virginia Tech. LaDazhia Williams busted out with 24 points against Utah but scored just four against the Hurricanes. Freshman Flau’jae Johnson has been a solid contributor all season but hasn’t been a factor in the past three games.
The Tigers will win if …: … Reese goes off. Her versatility and ability to help her team win in other ways than just scoring was on full display against Miami. However, LSU can’t afford another 3-for-15 shooting performance from Reese. It will also need her at a peak defensive level with Kitley on the other side in the semifinals. Reese has been the second-best player in the tournament behind Clark. She is also nearly as important to the Tigers as Clark is to the Hawkeyes. Without her producing at the level that amassed an SEC-record 32 double-doubles this season, LSU won’t win.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech reaches Final Four behind Elizabeth Kitley’s big game
Elizabeth Kitley posts a double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds to lift Virginia Tech past Ohio State and into the Final Four.
Reason to be excited: Amoore was a good player all season. She has been great in the postseason. Since the start of the ACC tournament, where she was named most outstanding player, she has averaged 23.0 points and 3.6 assists to go with 40.5% 3-point shooting. Ohio State had to abandon the press that carried the Buckeyes all season and rattled UConn into 25 turnovers in the Sweet 16 because Amoore broke it so easily. Kenny Brooks is bringing two stars to Dallas, as Amoore has joined center Kitley as one of the best players in the NCAA tournament.
Reason to be concerned: The Hokies’ bench consists of one player, 6-2 senior D’asia Gregg. Brooks got one minute from his other reserves in the regionals. While fatigue really isn’t an issue at this time of year, foul trouble and injuries are. When Amoore had to leave the court briefly after being knocked to the floor against Ohio State, Brooks didn’t have a reliable player off the bench to whom he could turn. That player was supposed to be Ashley Owusu, but injury and ineffectiveness have rendered the Maryland transfer a non-factor.
The Hokies will win if …: … Cayla King and Kayana Traylor are making 3-pointers. They don’t have to do extraordinary, but the Hokies need just enough to keep double-teams off Kitley in the post and keep the floor spread. The senior duo made 7-of-19 from deep in the regionals. That might suffice, although King is capable of an occasional big shooting night. This would be another good time to break out.