Women’s National Championship Preview: Iowa, South Carolina set for rematch

Iowa's Caitlin Clark shoots during practice for the NCAA Women's Final Four championship basketball game Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Cleveland. (Morry Gash/AP)

Iowa and South Carolina have only met twice in the history of the two programs, with the series tied 1-1.

But the latest meeting between the two teams was devastating for one side, the Gamecocks, as the Hawkeyes ended their season in the 2023 Final Four.

Now, with an undefeated season behind them and back in the title game for the second time since winning in 2022, South Carolina is ready for revenge led by Kamilla Cardoso, averaging 17 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the tournament.

Iowa will be in the title game for the second time in two years, losing to LSU in 2023 who they successfully knocked off in this year’s Elite Eight as Caitlin Clark dropped 41 and 12 assists.

Iowa’s women’s basketball team has never won a national championship, while South Carolina looks to win their third title since 2017. Here’s a preview of the two teams going head-to-head in the title game.

X-FACTORS

Simply saying to watch for Clark or Cardoso would be a disservice to them both as they bring more than just box scores to the court. Clark is an intelligent playmaker — just look at her inbound off of Paige Bueckers to waste more clock against UConn —while Cardoso is a machine in the paint; on the glass, blocking shots, and of course scoring.

More importantly, each team is more than just one player. Hannah Stuelke dropped 23 points and played 38 minutes in Iowa’s win over the Huskies, while Raven Johnson shot 60 per cent from the three-point line as she added 13 points for the Gamecocks against N.C. State.

Milaysia Fulwiley is averaging 11.6 points per game during the tournament, and had a 20-point performance against UNC that saw her go 4-of-7 from deep. She has played less minutes per game since, but has tipped in seven points in each of the last two matches playing 16 and 11 minutes.

Kate Martin had 11 points, eight rebounds and two steals against UConn, and is averaging 13.6 points and 9.4 points per game in the tournament. She’s scored double digits in all but one game during March Madness, and put up 21 points shooting 8-of-16 against LSU.

HOW DOES THE OFFENCE VS DEFENCE MATCH UP?

Watching how UConn’s Nika Mühl guarded Catilin Clark showed Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley exactly what she needed to know, as Mühl held Clark to 0-for-6 from three-point range and 3-for-11 shooting from the field in the first half with her press defence. 

Aside from Clark, Iowa has other scorers in Stuelke and Martin, but South Carolina is known for their defence, as Cardoso was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and WBCA Defensive Player of the Year. The Gamecocks allow just 56.1 points per game on average.

Fulwiley had four steals against the Wolfpack while Johnson had three, pressuring to force bad passes and create turnovers for easy points on the fast break.

But the Hawkeyes offence, which averages 91.4 points per game, has come back more than once during this competition, and will play all 40 minutes offensively.

As for Iowa’s defence, they will have to keep an eye out for Cardoso especially, and will likely give up longer range shots to players like Johnson, Fulwiley and Te-Hina Paopao if they choose to play a zone defence as they have 38.3 per cent of possessions during the tournament.

Marshall held Bueckers to only three points in the final 15 minutes of Iowa’s comeback win, while Sydney Affolter dominated on the glass as Iowa out-rebounded UConn 37-29.

WHO TAKES IT ALL?

Like many games in the tournament this year, this match-up is expected to be close: Clark is more than capable of pulling 20 points out in a half, turning the game around even if she had an ice-cold half like she did against UConn. But this also isn’t the same South Carolina team that the Hawkeyes beat last season.

There are a few things each team’s success hinges on. For South Carolina, Cardoso’s health is primary — she walked off the court in the first half against N.C. State, but returned to the game — as she is crucial for the Gamecocks in the paint.

Of course the Hawkeyes will rely on Clark as well as Stuelke, and if South Carolina can get to Clark the way Mühl did in the first half, they’ll have a chance to pull away the same way they did in the third quarter against the Wolfpack, outscoring their opponent 29-6.

Ashlyn Watkins recorded 20 rebounds, 15 defensively, against N.C. State, and will look to shut down Stuelke, but if Clark gets hot the way she did against LSU, or even in the second half against UConn, the Gamecocks will need to throw everything they can at her, which will open up other Iowa options.

The game looks like it will come down to the final buzzer, another instant classic in the making with talent on both benches. Clark and Cardoso will be expected to be headliners, but their supporting casts are extremely talented who will leave their marks in Cleveland.

The Gamecocks have a chip on their shoulder and revenge on their mind, while the Hawkeyes have history to make — and in this national championship, it looks to be anyone’s game.

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