Clark leads Iowa back to the Final Four. Undefeated South Carolina will be there, too

Published 4:29 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2024

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ALBANY, N.Y. — Caitlin Clark and Iowa are back in the Final Four again. So are Dawn Staley and undefeated South Carolina.

The women’s basketball world will descend on Cleveland for the national semifinals on Friday and the championship game two days later.

Clark willed her team to its second consecutive trip to the Final Four, scoring 41 points to beat defending champion LSU 94-87 on Monday night. The Tigers knocked out the Hawkeyes last year in the title game. Now the Hawkeyes are two wins away from their first national championship.

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“That’s obviously our goal. That’s where we want to be,” Clark said. “But you’ve got to win one at a time. There’s still two more there to get. That’s what makes the Final Four so fun. Anybody can take it. Anybody can win it.”

Next up for Iowa is UConn, the team that knocked them out of the tournament in Clark’s freshman season. The Huskies beat Southern California 80-73 in the other regional final on Monday night.

Staley’s team will face North Carolina State, which is making its first appearance in the Final Four since 1998.

A lot of attention will be on Clark, which Staley doesn’t mind, because it means her unbeaten team is flying a bit under the radar. It’s the second consecutive year that South Carolina has reached the Final Four undefeated and the fourth in a row the team has advanced at least this far.

Most of the talk this season has focused on star players across the country like Clark, USC’s JuJu Watkins, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo.

The Gamecocks, who have an entire new starting five this year, aren’t built around just one player. They have taken a back seat as far as attention goes.

“I like it. I really do. Like go ahead, take the spotlight, put it somewhere else,” Staley said. “Let this team continue to thrive in the space that they’re given.

Hopefully at the end of the day, next week this time, I’m hoping that we give a lot of people a lot to talk about.”

Like South Carolina, there wasn’t much expectation for the Wolfpack to make the Final Four. They were unranked coming into the start of the season, making N.C. State the first unranked team in the preseason poll to reach the Final Four since Washington did it in 2016. Wins over UConn and Colorado before December gave notice that the Wolfpack really were a good team.

N.C. State was one win away from reaching the national semifinals two years ago before losing to UConn in double overtime in the Elite Eight.

“I think of Kay Yow — 34 years at N.C. State and took this program to a Final Four in ’98,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. “I think of the players two years ago that were a double-overtime game away from being in this exact spot. So I think of them. And then I think of these players, again, overcoming all the doubts and questions and just — Final Four, y’all.”

Moore knows his team has a tall task ahead against the Gamecocks.

“They’re a great, great team. Obviously, the best team in the country. But you’re not playing a four-out-of-seven series. You’re playing one game, OK?” he said. “So we’ve just got to find a way to win one game against them, and it’s going to be a big challenge.”

UConn is back in the Final Four after seeing its 14-year run end last season in a loss to Ohio State. Now the Huskies will have to figure out a way to slow down Clark, who has been nearly unstoppable the last two years.