Two of the nation’s best players and their teams will face off in the NCAA women’s Final Four on Friday with hopes of advancing to play for a national championship.
The South Carolina Gamecocks and the Iowa Hawkeyes will meet in what’s expected to be one of the most viewed women’s basketball games of all time.
The reason for the excitement surrounding the game comes down to two of the game’s most talented athletes, Gamecock senior forward Aliyah Boston and Hawkeye junior guard Caitlin Clark.
Boston and Clark were both candidates for this year’s Naismith Player of The Year award with Clark capturing the title. Both were also candidates for the 2021-2022 award too, but Boston claimed the award then.
“Everybody's been talking about the match-up for a really long time now, but it's exciting that it's happening in the final four,” Boston said. “I think it's just a great game for women’s basketball.”
This season, Boston averaged 13.2 points and 9.8 rebounds on 56.8% shooting. She averaged two blocks a game and won her second consecutive Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award on Wednesday.
For Iowa, Clark averaged 27.3 points a game, 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists. She led the nation with the most 25-point, 5 rebounds and 5 assists games this season.
“She's definitely a knockdown shooter,” senior guard Zia Cooke said. “Her game has grown tremendously in a lot of different ways, and I can’t wait to see it.”
The Gamecocks are playing in its third Final Four in a row fresh off its 86-75 victory over 2-seeded Maryland. South Carolina has outscored its opponents by at least 10 in every game of the tournament so far.
“We know we have an incredible challenge ahead of us, but at the same time, everybody loves an underdog,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “I've been coming to the Final Four for a long, long time, but my seats are finally gonna be pretty good.”
The Hawkeyes rank as one of the country's best offensive teams. Iowa averaged almost 88 points per game on 51.1% shooting with 21.1 assists a game — all of which rank first in the nation. Its offensive rating, 113.9, is second in the country.
In its most recent game, Iowa advanced after defeating Louisville in the Elite Eight 97-83. Clark recorded the NCAA Tournament's first 40-point triple-double on the men’s or women’s side after scoring 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
“She'll be able to pivot and take and make incredible shots both from outside, way outside the three to at the rim,” Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley said. “We got to show her different looks toward us and hopefully keep her somewhat under control.”
The Gamecocks will try to combat the high-powered Hawkeye offense with its top-ranking defense.
South Carolina leads the nation in opponent field goal percentage, blocks and score differential, outscoring its opponents by almost 30 points. It ranks second in points allowed and defensive rating. If the team finishes the season with its +20.3 rebounding margin, it would rank second in NCAA history behind Baylor in 2017.
“Both of their bigs are so good,” Iowa fifth-year center Monika Czinano said. “I'm really lucky to have played in the Big Ten … It's kind of prepared me the best way it could for this game. But I truly think at this point in my career, having played for five years, I've played against so many different style post players. So many different physicality levels that I'm really excited for this opportunity.”
The Gamecocks will also attempt to take advantage of its depth. The team has 10 players who scored at least 5 points a game this season, while Iowa struggled to stop opposing teams’ benches, ranking 138th in the nation for bench points scored not allowed.
“The depth on their team is amazing,” Bluder said. “Their height on their team is amazing. And obviously, they have got tremendous coaches.”
The game will be just the second ever between these two teams. The first game was played in December 1989 in Hilton Head Island, S.C. The Gamecocks won the contest 82-76.
This year’s Final Four may be the last for South Carolina’s powerful “freshies” class. Regardless of the pressure, the players are seeking to end their South Carolina careers on top.
“I think pressure can either make you or break you,” Cooke said. “It definitely is an emotional moment just to know that this will be our last time all together, playing together. But we try to keep our emotions to the side and just focus on business right now.”
South Carolina will face Iowa in Dallas on Friday at 9 p.m. The game can be viewed on ESPN.