Iowa hasn't been to the Final Four since 1993. LSU is back for the first time in 15 years. Virginia Tech has never been. This was the first Elite Eight since 1985 that did not include UConn, Tennessee or Stanford. New blood has been the mark of the 2023 women's NCAA tournament, and now so much of it is heading to Dallas. Parity in women's basketball is real.
And then there is South Carolina. Monday's win over Maryland marked the Gamecocks' school-record 36th victory of the season. They have now won 42 in a row. The Final Four has seemed like a foregone conclusion for a year since they hoisted the 2022 trophy. If South Carolina completes its perfect run in Dallas, the Gamecocks will be the 10th team to finish the season undefeated. UConn in 2016 was the last undefeated team and the most recent back-to-back champion.
The next step for the Gamecocks is a matchup nearly every observer of the women's game has craved all season, and now Iowa-South Carolina arrives on the biggest stage. It's the game's toughest defense vs. the most prolific offense, and although they won't match up directly, having Aliyah Boston and Caitlin Clark on the floor together will feel electric.
The entire Final Four is full of stars. LSU's Angel Reese has put up stat lines all season that at times seem incomprehensible. Elizabeth Kitley is a two-time ACC Player of the Year. Point guard Georgia Amoore has become a star in this NCAA tournament.
Still, despite all the Final Four newcomers, nothing will be bigger than South Carolina's pursuit of a repeat and perfection.
The Gamecocks are, of course, the No. 1 team in our ranking of all the Final Four teams.
After defeating 2-seed Maryland in the Elite Eight, Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke describe the elation of 1-seed South Carolina punching its ticket to the Final Four.
South Carolina Gamecocks
NCAA tournament seed: No. 1 overall (Greenville 1)
Path to the Final Four: Defeated Norfolk State 72-40; defeated South Florida 76-45; defeated UCLA 59-43; defeated Maryland 86-75
The Gamecocks breezed to a national championship a year ago. Only one team in the NCAA tournament came within 10 points. This team is even better and cruising even more comfortably. Maryland lost by the smallest margin and was the first opponent to even score over 45 points, but the regional final was still essentially decided early in the fourth quarter. The dominance has just been so thorough, and South Carolina makes it look so routine as it improved to 36-0 in its pursuit of back-to-back titles and a perfect season.
Not surprisingly, the Gamecocks' two best players had their most impressive performances of the tournament in the biggest game of the season. Aliyah Boston asserted herself with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Zia Cooke scored 18 points to go with eight rebounds. The Final Four will need, and likely receive, more of that from Boston and Cooke. Boston has played better against better competition this season, with double-doubles against Maryland (twice), Stanford, UCLA (regular season) and UConn. She was one rebound short against LSU.
For as much as Boston is the team's individual star, South Carolina's team concept, particularly on defense, continues to lead the way as well. The Gamecocks are first in the country in points allowed per game, field goal percentage defense and blocked shots per game. Every team South Carolina has played scored below its average. Now comes the biggest test with Iowa, which leads the nation in scoring (87.6 PPG).
Up next: vs. Iowa on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)
While noting the Elite Eight victory over Miami "wasn't pretty," Kim Mulkey explains why she's so excited for the Tigers to enjoy what's to come.
NCAA tournament seed: No. 2 (Seattle 4)
Path to the Final Four: Defeated SE Louisiana 95-43; defeated Georgia 74-66; defeated Colorado 87-77; defeated Louisville 97-83
Caitlin Clark couldn't leave well enough alone. After grabbing her 10th rebound against Louisville, she had the first 30-point triple-double in NCAA tournament history. Then she kept going. And scoring. Two free throws later she had 41 points, leapfrogging to the first 40-point triple-double the NCAA tournament has seen. That capped one of March's all-time best performances: 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Unstoppable the entire season, Clark has gone to an even higher level the past two weeks. She is averaging 30.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 11 assists per game in the tournament, and only Georgia in the second round held her below 50% shooting.
All the numbers are astounding, but perhaps the most eye-opening is that she has either scored or assisted on 62% of Iowa's points in four tournament games. The shooting of Gabbie Marshall and McKenna Warnock has helped lift those assist numbers, but they are also finding themselves wide-open because of the attention Clark gets, as well as her ability to set up her teammates perfectly.
After both games in the Seattle 4 Regional, Clark referred to her teammates as a tight circle. The lineup of Clark, Marshall, Warnock, Monika Czinano and Kate Martin has started 90 games together. That's a staggering number in any sport, at any time. Considering these are the days of the transfer portal and coaching upheaval, the longevity of this Hawkeyes connection is even more astounding. This is the team Lisa Bluder has been building toward since taking the Iowa coaching job in the spring of 2000, getting the program back to the Final Four for the first time in 30 years.
Up next: vs. South Carolina on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Dawn Staley describes how South Carolina is the 'epitome of winners' due to sacrifice and commitment on the court, following the victory over 2-seed Maryland, 86-75.
Virginia Tech Hokies
NCAA tournament seed: No. 1 (Seattle 3)
Path to the Final Four: Defeated Chattanooga 58-33; defeated South Dakota State 72-60; defeated Tennessee 73-64; defeated Ohio State 84-74
Moments don't get much more anxious than in the second quarter Monday night against Ohio State. Point guard Georgia Amoore got banged in the face and went to the ground. She wobbled to her feet and had to be helped to the locker room. The key to Virginia Tech's postseason success and primary ball handler against the vaunted Buckeyes press was out of the game. And it didn't look good. And then, just as fast, everything was fine. Amoore returned to the bench, gave coach Kenny Brooks a thumbs-up and was back in the game. Moments later, Ohio State pulled back its press because Amoore was breaking it too easily. Just over an hour later, the Hokies were in their first Final Four.
The chemistry between Amoore and center Elizabeth Kitley is unmistakable. It also produces tangible results. They combined for 49 points against Ohio State and have paved the way for 15 consecutive victories. Nine of those were against teams in the top 25. Another was over a Miami team that reached the Elite Eight. Virginia Tech, which hasn't lost since Jan. 26, earned its place in Dallas.
Up next: vs. LSU on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
NCAA tournament seed: No. 3 (Greenville 2)
Path to the Final Four: Defeated Hawaii 73-50; defeated Michigan 66-42; defeated Utah 66-63; defeated Miami 54-42
Except for the result, the win over Miami in the Elite Eight isn't one LSU would put into a time capsule. The offense was plodding, the shooting was wretched and rhythm was nonexistent. But winning ugly is always better than the alternative. LSU shot just 30.2% from the field and made one 3-pointer (Miami made none and the teams went 1-for-27 from deep, the worst combined performance in the tournament in 23 years).
But in just two years in Baton Rouge, Kim Mulkey has gotten the Tigers back to the Final Four, a place where they were a regular participant from 2004 to 2008. Last season, with a team she constructed mostly of transfers, LSU reached the second round. She preached patience. This season's edition, with another large contingent of new faces, didn't listen. LSU, with a starting lineup on Sunday that consisted of three first-year transfers and one freshman, came together steadily as the season progressed and clinched the program's first Final Four in 15 years.
Angel Reese, who has an SEC-record 32 double-doubles after transferring from Maryland, is both the glue of the team and its best player. Even with a subpar shooting night against the Hurricanes, Reese has been the best player in the NCAA tournament this side of Clark, stuffing the box score with 22.5 points, 17.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 3.8 blocks per game. Even without scoring, Reese changes the game. Just after Miami recovered from a tough start to tie the score at 18 on Sunday, Reese made consecutive steals, one which also required an athletic save on the sideline, that led to a pair of Sa'Myah Smith baskets. Just over 30 seconds later Reese fired a crosscourt, overhead bounce pass to Alexis Morris for a layup. The six-point run, with all the plays initiated by Reese, created separation, and Miami never got closer the rest of the game.
For much of the season, LSU was criticized for a weak nonconference schedule. But perhaps it was really a stroke of genius. This new group had the chance to develop without the pressure of losing games, starting the season 23-0 before suffering its first loss Feb. 12 against South Carolina. Confidence and chemistry have now carried the Tigers to the season's final weekend.
Up next: vs. Virginia Tech on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)