Women’s Final Four Preview: Can Clark and Iowa dethrone South Carolina?

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

South Carolina, LSU, Iowa and Virginia Tech are heading to Dallas for the Final Four all looking for glory.

South Carolina is trying to defend their 2022 title, but the other three will do everything they can to knock off Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks to claim the championship for their own.

Here are the storylines to watch during the Women’s March Madness Final Four.

South Carolina on track to defend glory

It’s hard to believe that the undefeated Gamecocks could ever have a chip on their shoulder, but after Caitlin Clark won the Associated Press National Player of the Year title, and Indiana head coach Teri Moren won AP Head Coach of the Year, South Carolina could be the first undefeated team to not have the team’s star player or coach win the respective AP award.

Clark edged out Aliyah Boston for the Naismith and AP National Player of the Year awards, though South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley did nab the Naismith Coach of the Year award.

Boston may have missed out on the award purely for the fact South Carolina is so well-rounded, with Zia Cooke taking off pressure offensively, while the team as a unit works as a flawless unit on defence, like how they came from behind to stifle Maryland despite early concerns.

The Gamecocks are not just a one-woman show — the bench scores 36 points per game, nearly 45 per cent of the team’s offence, and star Boston spent an average of 15 minutes on the bench per game during the regular season.

Even after a slow start against the Terrapins, a second-quarter surge saw the Gamecocks get back in front with Boston going 10-of-14 for the field for 22 points in the game, adding 10 rebounds and five assists. Cooke continued to add support with 18 points and eight rebounds and senior Brea Beal went off for 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists, showing just how versatile South Carolina can be offensively.

The Gamecocks have won every March Madness game this year by double digits, and while finding a way to stop Clark is nearly impossible, the defence that South Carolina plays is hard to get past.

[brightcove videoID=6323496908112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Caitlin Clark is on a mission to win

You don’t win National Player of the Year by fluke, and there’s not a player more entertaining in the world of basketball right now than Clark.

Simply put, Clark is a game-changer. Iowa has many incredible talents on their team, like McKenna Warnock and Gabbie Marshall, who put up 17 and 14 points respectively in Iowa’s 97-83 win over Louisville, having to overcome Hailey Van Lith’s 27 points and Olivia Cochran’s 20-point, 14-rebound double-double.

But Clark is a special player. Not that anyone needed the reminder, but Clark became the first player in Division I history, men’s or women’s, to record a 40-point triple-double in Iowa’s win over the Cardinals.

Clark does it all offensively, whether it’s dishing no-look passes, making ice-cold three-pointers to seal a win, or crashing the boards up against players much bigger than her. The hunger that Clark has inside to win is rarely replicated, and her desire to bring success to Iowa is apparent.

The Hawkeyes are in their first Final Four since 1993, and have also won all of their March Madness games by double digits in the tournament. Clark is lethal from three-point range, and can’t just be left open anywhere on the floor.

The Gamecocks managed to hold UCLA’s Charisma Osborne to 14 points in their Elite Eight matchup, and are one of the strongest and most cohesive defensive units in the country. But at the end of the day, they’ve never had to match up with a player remotely as dynamic as Clark.

Bayou Barbie and LSU can’t be stopped

LSU forward Angel Reese does it all on the court — big blocks, huge rebounds and clutch shots. And she looks flawless while doing it, hence the name Bayou Barbie, a nickname she earned for having perfect lashes and nails along with a killer stat line every night.

But Reese doesn’t do it alone, and coach Kim Mulkey has instilled a winning culture down in Baton Rouge that propelled the No. 3 seed Tigers to the Final Four by knocking off No. 2 Utah and then beating Miami by double digits.

South Carolina may be top of the SEC, but LSU has proven why the conference has some of the best talent in basketball, with Alexis Morris putting the Tigers on her back against Miami scoring 21 points and playing all 40 minutes while Reese dominated on the boards.

Reese has recorded a double-double every game of the tournament this year while playing over 30 minutes in each one, and has been the heart of an LSU team in just her sophomore year with the school.

Mulkey took no time at all to show why she is one of women’s basketball’s top coaches, reaching the Final Four in just her second season as head coach after a 32-2 regular season record and an impressive tournament run.

The Tigers haven’t scored more than 66 points in the last three rounds of the tournament and will need a more well-rounded offence to beat the Hokies, who played a dominant game against Ohio State. But if there’s a question as to how they could pull off a win, Reese’s two-way play is the answer.

Virginia Tech proves No. 1 seed wasn’t by fluke

Seattle 3 was a region with a lot of tough talent in the pool — UConn’s historic streaks were snapped by a talented Ohio State team and the Tennessee Lady Vols made a convincing Sweet 16 run.

But all that competition is now in the rearview as Virginia Tech outlasted the Lady Vols and the Buckeyes and will now face the LSU Tigers in the Final Four, the first time the Hokies will be making an appearance.

The last time head coach Kenny Brooks met up with Mulkey during March Madness, when she was coach of the Baylor Bears, the Hokies lost by 42 points and Virginia Tech was sent home in the second round.

But things are different this time around, and two of the main reasons are junior guard Georgia Amoore and centre Elizabeth Kitley, who contributed 49 of Virginia Tech’s 84 points in a win over Ohio State.

Amoore, a three-point threat and elite scorer, managed to add 24 points in the win, but it was Kitley’s massive double-double of 25 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks that sealed it. Kitley has averaged 12 points and eight rebounds per game during the tournament shooting over 41 per cent, while Amoore is up to 21 points per game.

Virginia Tech’s rotation may not be a large one, but their solid contributors are what have made the Hokies a strong enough squad to be able to advance to the Final Four. Cayla King has found her rhythm playing over 30 minutes a night and contributing not only in scoring but with stealthy defence, while Taylor Soule has been another reliable shooter and can also be dominant on the glass.

Playing against a high-intensity team like LSU won’t be easy, but the Hokies have a plan in the sense that their rotation may be small, but they are definitely mighty.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.