Women’s Final Four 2024: Can NC State, UConn or Iowa give South Carolina its first loss?

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By jeenmediaa

This Final Four is dripping with history.

For the second consecutive year, South Carolina enters the final weekend unbeaten and will try to be the 10th team to finish a championship season without a loss. UConn, the most storied program in women’s college basketball with 11 NCAA titles, advances to its 23rd Final Four. Caitlin Clark sits atop the all-time scoring list after a record-breaking senior year — and has a chance to add to a monumental legacy by bringing Iowa its first championship. NC State might not bring historical weight, but the Wolfpack are in their second Final Four in program history and their first in 26 years.

Like UConn, the Wolfpack are a No. 3 seed — the first time since 2016 the Final Four will include two teams seeded No. 3 or lower — but despite beating a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed in the regionals, NC State had the least stressful journey to Cleveland of any of the four teams. The wins over Stanford and Texas in the regionals were each by 10 points.

The Wolfpack and Gamecocks get the festivities started Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Then it’s UConn vs. Iowa (9:30 p.m. ET). Or is it Paige vs. Caitlin? The winners of three of the past four national player of the year awards are sure to steal the headlines.

Here’s how each team could cut down the nets in Cleveland.



NC State rides hot first half to Final Four berth

Aziaha James’ five first-half 3s power the Wolfpack to their second Final Four berth in school history.


Round of 64: No. 14 Chattanooga 64-45
Round of 32: No. 6 Tennessee 79-72
Sweet 16: No. 2 Stanford 77-67
Elite Eight: No. 1 Texas 76-66
Final Four opponent: South Carolina, Friday, 7 p.m. ET

Reason to be excited: Let’s begin with this being the program’s first Final Four since 1998. The party-crashing Wolfpack beat a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed to get here. And it’s double the fun in Raleigh, with the school’s 11th-seeded men heading to their first Final Four since 1983. Coach Wes Moore produced the women’s basketball program’s first No. 1 seeds in 2021 and 2022, but those teams — led by All-American post player Elissa Cunane — couldn’t break through, suffering heartbreaking losses to Indiana in the Sweet 16 and UConn in the Elite Eight. This season’s team is guard-driven, and Aziaha James has become the player most surprise Final Four teams need to raise their level of play. James has played like a star. She averaged 15.8 points per game during the regular season but is up to 24.3 points per game in the NCAA tournament, making 16 of 28 3-point attempts.

Backcourt mates Saniya Rivers and Zoe Brooks have also increased their scoring averages in the past four games, and their 16 second-half points against Texas’ rugged frontline are also big reasons the Wolfpack finally got back to the national semifinals.

Reason to be concerned: Brooks comes off the bench, but she is essentially the only one. Freshman Maddie Cox has played nine minutes per game in the NCAA tournament. That hasn’t mattered to this point, but South Carolina can bring in waves of rested guards and wear down opposing backcourts like no other team in the country. River Baldwin and Mimi Collins will have to stay out of foul trouble and rebound aggressively at the same time, no easy task battling South Carolina’s taller frontline. Neither has fouled out of a game this season, but the Gamecocks, particularly the 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso, present a challenge.

The Wolfpack will win if … they make shots. NC State beat Stanford and Texas in Portland on the strength of its perimeter shooting (16-for-35 on 3-pointers). James couldn’t miss in the first half against Texas, and the Wolfpack guard trio completely overwhelmed Stanford’s guards in the Sweet 16. Not that a player needs extra motivation in the Final Four, but Rivers will be playing against the program she left two years ago. If she channels that “I have something to prove” energy in the right way, she could have the kind of game that lifts NC State to the upset.



UConn reaches record 23rd Final Four behind Bueckers’ 28-point night

Paige Bueckers scores 28 points to go with 10 rebounds and 6 assists as UConn tops USC to reach its 23rd Final Four.


Round of 64: def. No. 14 Jackson State 86-64
Round of 32: def. No. 6 Syracuse 72-64
Sweet 16: def. No. 7 Duke 53-45
Elite Eight: def. No. 1 USC
Final Four opponent: Iowa, Friday 9 p.m. ET

Reason to be excited: In dogs’ (or Huskies’) minds, one year feels like seven, so UConn’s one-year absence from the Final Four may have felt like a seven-year eternity. The long wait is over. The Huskies have now reached the final weekend for the 15th time in 16 years. As good as Bueckers was in winning national player of the year as a freshman in 2021, she’s better now. After missing a huge chunk of the 2022 season and last year completely, Bueckers is healthy and playing the best basketball of her life, averaging a career-best 22.3 points and 5.2 rebounds. She has now scored over 20 points in seven straight games and has scoring-rebounding double-doubles in three of the Huskies four NCAA tournament games. Her 1.5 blocks and 3.3 steals per game in the tournament help back up Auriemma’s claim that Bueckers is the best player in the country. Muhl will probably draw most of the assignment on Clark, but Bueckers will have her time, just like she did against JuJu Watkins for much of the fourth quarter against Southern California with Muhl saddled with four fouls.

When UConn and Iowa faced off in the 2021 regional semifinals — and both stars were freshmen — Clark had 21 points and five assists. Bueckers went for 21 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a 20-point Huskies’ win. But now they are household names, better players with more at stake, so what could be more exciting than Bueckers and Clark going one-on-one in the final minutes of the fourth quarter of a Final Four game?

Reason to be concerned: Look no further than UConn’s lack of depth. Somehow Geno Auriemma and his staff have been able to figure out how to successfully play — the Huskies are on a 13-game winning streak — with six players for more than two months. Yet it only takes that one game for foul trouble to end it all. Monday against USC could have been the night. KK Arnold, Nika Muhl and Edwards finished the game with four fouls. No one has fouled out of a game since Muhl against Notre Dame on January 27th, but Edwards has gotten four personals in three of the four NCAA tournament games. If UConn loses her for any extended time the chances of winning a 12th title drop significantly.

The Huskies will win if … Edwards has a big game. Avoiding foul trouble is merely the beginning for the 6-3 senior. She must be productive, too. After Bueckers and Edwards, the Huskies don’t have much further to look for reliable scoring. Muhl is a pass-first point guard, and Ashlynn Shade and Arnold are only freshmen. Edwards averages 17.4 points on 59.2% shooting and 9.2 rebounds on the season. UConn will need at least that if the Huskies have to outscore Iowa.



Caitlin Clark, Iowa advance to Final Four in LSU rematch

Scott Van Pelt recaps Iowa’s 94-87 win over LSU, highlighted by an astounding 41-point night from Caitlin Clark.


Round of 64: def. No. 16 Holy Cross 91-65
Round of 32: def. No. 8 West Virginia 64-54
Sweet 16: def. No. 5 Colorado 89-68
Elite Eight: def. No. 3 LSU 94-87
Final Four opponent: UConn, Friday, 9 p.m. ET

Reason to be excited: Caitlin Clark‘s résumé is astounding. Watching her play is exhilarating. It’s almost impossible to fathom what a championship would mean to the University of Iowa and Clark’s enormous fan base. For a second consecutive year, Clark has carried the Hawkeyes to the Final Four after not reaching it for 30 years. Certainly, she has had help, like the 21 points from Kate Martin and 16 from Sydney Affolter in the Elite Eight win over LSU, but this Iowa success has come on the back of Clark’s record-setting four years in Iowa City. Already the career leading scorer, she set the Division I record for 3-pointers in a career on Monday night. Her 41 points and 12 assists were another example as to why twice in the past three seasons, she has led the country in both scoring and assists. Averaging 29.3 points in this NCAA tournament and now the all-time tournament leader in 3-pointers and assists, Clark has postseason numbers just as astonishing as the rest of her career. All of her scoring and passing skills have helped the Hawkeyes lead the country in scoring each of the past two years.

Reason to be concerned: Because of Clark’s brilliance and the versatility, smarts and commitment of players such as Martin, Affolter, Gabbie Marshall and Hannah Stuelke, Iowa has been able to navigate around its lack of size. While they were ninth in the country in defensive rebounds per game and a respectable 25th in total rebound rate, the Hawkeyes were crushed on the boards by the taller Tigers 54-36. The good news is that UConn doesn’t play anyone taller than the 6-3 Aaliyah Edwards and Ice Brady, and the Huskies are not an intimidating rebound club either. The bad news is that South Carolina, who is long and dominates on the boards, sits on the other side of the bracket. However, the Hawkeyes did lose the rebounding battle to the Gamecocks 49-25 in the national semifinals last year and still won the game. Iowa also allows 71.5 points per game, meaning Clark has to be good enough each game for the Hawkeyes to outscore the other team.

The Hawkeyes will win if … Clark keeps playing like this. Monday’s win was the best performance of her career when the lights were shining the brightest. She was better with more assists and more 3-pointers, than she was against South Carolina in the Final Four. The Hawkeyes were 12-1 this season when Clark scored 35 points or more and 20-1 when she recorded double-digit assists. As long as there is some efficiency to her game and her teammates are opportunistic, Iowa can win two games and a title.



Undefeated South Carolina advances to Final Four

Tessa Johnson scores 15 points, Kamilla Cardoso adds 12 and the Gamecocks advance to the Final Four for the fourth straight time with a 70-58 win over Oregon State.


Round of 64: def. No. 16 Presbyterian 91-39
Round of 32: def. No. 8 North Carolina 88-41
Sweet 16: def. No. 4 Indiana 79-75
Elite Eight: def. No. 3 Oregon State 70-58
Final Four opponent: NC State, Friday, 7 p.m. ET

Reason to be excited: This is the best team in the country and has been all season. For a second year in a row, the Gamecocks head into the Final Four undefeated, but this is different group. That is why Dawn Staley appears headed toward numerous coach of the year awards. She replaced all five starters from a Final Four team and made it there again. There are similarities. Both teams are exceptional defensively, rebound at an elite level and have plenty of depth. This year’s team leads the country in opponents’ points per 100 possessions and is fourth in rebound rate (last season, South Carolina was second and first in those categories, respectively).

But this team is even deeper and shoots much better from the perimeter. Seven Gamecocks average at least eight points per game. At 8.1 PPG, point guard Raven Johnson is the lowest scorer of the group, yet she might be the player Staley relies on most to deliver in the clutch. Cardoso tops the list at 14.1 PPG, and her 2.5 blocks per game pace South Carolina, which leads the country in that category as well. The Gamecocks’ 3-point shooting is the most obvious difference. The addition of Te-Hina Paopao (46.3% 3-point shooting) has helped lift the Gamecocks from a 31.0% 3-point shooting team in 2022-23 to 39.4% this season, the fourth-biggest improvement in Division I.

Reason to be concerned: Last year’s team didn’t win it all — it had one bad night and ran into a superstar performance by Clark in losing to Iowa in the national semifinals. This year’s team might ultimately cut down the nets. But the confidence in the Gamecocks doesn’t feel as strong as it did a year ago. And that is because of the questions surrounding how this younger South Carolina team handles leads, an issue that surfaced in the past month. The Gamecocks were fortunate to stay unbeaten in the SEC tournament semifinals against Tennessee. They lost a 23-point lead, fell behind and only won when Cardoso banked in the first 3-pointer of her career at the buzzer. Double-digit leads turned into competitive fourth quarters in both Albany Regional games against Indiana and Oregon State. Big shots by Raven Johnson and Tessa Johnson rescued those situations, but with an even bigger spotlight on Cleveland, South Carolina’s troubles closing might be more magnified and more difficult to rescue.

The Gamecocks will win if … they play at their top level. South Carolina at its best is unmatched. The Gamecocks have more ways to win than any other team in Cleveland. If options Nos. 1, 2 and 3 aren’t working, Staley has Nos. 4, 5 and 6. If the Gamecocks aren’t shooting well, their rebounding can carry them. Or their elite defense. Staley can mix and match personnel to play the hot hand. In the SEC tournament, it was MiLaysia Fulwiley as her primary guard off the bench — and she won tournament MVP honors. In the NCAA tournament, it has been Tessa Johnson. It could be Ashlyn Watkins or Chloe Kitts inside. The bench averages 33.9 points per game. South Carolina even won five games this year without Cardoso, but she and Raven Johnson are the players with true Final Four experience, and they will likely be the constants on whom Staley leans.

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