What To Watch For In The Women’s Final Four
This article is part of our March Madness series.
There will be no shortage of star power in Dallas for the women’s Final Four this weekend, from South Carolina center Aliyah Boston and Iowa guard Caitlin Clark on the court to South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and LSU head coach Kim Mulkey on the sidelines. Yet there is a sense of parity as well, with first-time semifinalist Virginia Tech, No. 2 seed Iowa and No. 3 seed LSU all looking to topple the undefeated Gamecocks.
“The game has grown so much that really anybody, any program, can make it to the Final Four,” Staley told reporters this week.
And once it gets there, any team also has a chance to lift the championship trophy. Let’s break down Friday’s semifinal matchups and explain how each team could emerge victorious.
No. 3 LSU vs. No. 1 Virginia Tech
7 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN
FiveThirtyEight favorite: LSU (60 percent)
Vegas line: LSU -1.5
Storylines: In the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Mulkey’s Baylor team beat Kenny Brooks and Virginia Tech. When the coaches shook hands afterward, Brooks told reporters this week, Mulkey offered some prescient encouragement about what was then a young Hokies roster.
“She said, ‘Behind that mask, Kenny, I know you’re smiling. … You just have babies, and you’re going to be good,’” Brooks recalled.
Mulkey moved on to LSU after that season, the young Hokies grew up, and now the coaches meet again for a spot in the national championship game.
Why the Tigers are favorites: Both teams have All-American-caliber post players in Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley and LSU’s Angel Reese, and both have all-conference point guards who are their teams’ second-leading scorers in Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore and LSU’s Alexis Morris. But Mulkey won three national titles and coached in four Final Fours at Baylor, while Brooks is making his debut on this stage.
Brooks is an excellent coach, having led Virginia Tech to its first-ever conference tournament title this season. But Mulkey’s experience might be the difference in preparing her team for the moment or late in a close game.
Why the Hokies can pull the upset: In March, Amoore has been on a tear that few other players in the country can match. She is averaging 24.0 points in four NCAA Tournament games, including a career-high 29 in the Sweet 16 against Tennessee. She also has made 20 3-pointers, the most in NCAA Tournament history through four games.
Amoore would be challenging for any team to keep up with, but her recent form may be particularly concerning for LSU because of its offensive struggles in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers are averaging just 64.8 points per game in the postseason on 37.5 percent shooting, well below their season averages of 81.8 points per game on 46.1 percent shooting. In addition, the Tigers average only 5.1 3-pointers per game — barely more than Amoore’s 5.0 in the tournament to date. If LSU’s defense can’t contain Amoore, will its offense be able to keep pace?
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 1 South Carolina
Approx. 9 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN
FiveThirtyEight favorite: South Carolina (80 percent)
Vegas line: South Carolina -11.5
Storylines: The nightcap presents a matchup of the season-long front-runners for National Player of the Year in Boston and Clark. They won’t guard each other, but they’ll both have the chance to leave a huge mark on the game.
As much as this is a matchup of stars, though, it’s also a clash of excellent supporting casts. South Carolina’s depth has been widely praised, with 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso and 6-foot-4 forward Laeticia Amihere — the former a game-changer with her length, the latter a Tokyo Olympian — being just two of Staley’s reserves. Iowa’s supporting cast, though, often flies under the radar. The Hawkeyes’ starters will start their 91st game together on Friday, and that continuity and chemistry could be crucial on the biggest stage.
Why the Gamecocks are favorites: In this matchup, South Carolina’s defense and offensive rebounding should be separators. Over the past few seasons, Iowa has been criticized for its mediocre-to-downright-bad defense and how that has limited its postseason ceiling. This season, the Hawkeyes rank 190th out of 361 teams in defensive rating, up from 216th last season and 338th two years ago. The improvement is largely fueled by defensive rebounding: The Hawkeyes are rebounding 75 percent of opponents’ misses this season, which ranks 12th nationally. Last year, they ranked 109th, and two years ago, they ranked 236th.
But there are two issues with that here: Iowa’s defense is still nowhere close to South Carolina’s, and South Carolina is the best in the country on the offensive glass, rebounding 48.7 percent of its misses and converting them into 18.7 second-chance points per game. So South Carolina can separate itself from Iowa and extend its perfect season simply by bringing its usual stifling defense and relentless rebounding.
Why the Hawkeyes can pull the upset: They have Caitlin Clark. Yes, South Carolina has the second-best defense in the country and an elite defensive wing in Brea Beal, but guarding Clark is unlike guarding any other player. She recorded the first 40-point triple-double in the history of the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight, and through four NCAA Tournament games she is averaging 30.0 points, 11.0 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and an incredible 48.7 percent from 3-point range. Over the entire season, she is the only player since 2009-10 to average at least 25 points and seven assists — and she has done it in three straight seasons.
“We really haven’t played against a player like Caitlin and her ability to have a big game, fill up the stat sheet,” Staley said. “So … we have to take something away: her ability to score in bunches or her ability to distribute the basketball. She just really can’t have the full tilt of what she does. If you allow her to do that, they win every time.”
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