Women’s Final Four: What you need to know

The NCAA 2024 Women’s Final Four games are set to take place in Cleveland on Friday. Photo courtesy of NCAA

HALLIE ANDERSON | STAFF REPORTER | hcanderson@butler.edu 

The South Carolina Gamecocks will face the NC State Wolfpack as the Iowa Hawkeyes match up against the UConn Huskies in one of the most star-studded Final Fours to date. Iowa and South Carolina have been season-long favorites to make a run for the finals, but March Madness is anyone’s game. Here’s a look into the strengths, weaknesses and star power of the best teams in college basketball before Friday’s tipoff. 

South Carolina Gamecocks 

South Carolina is an obvious pick to win the 2024 National Championship. The team has dominated college basketball for the past decade and even more so for the past four seasons. The last time they lost a regular-season game was Dec. 30, 2021. This will be the Gamecocks’ fourth consecutive appearance in the Final Four of March Madness, making them the team to beat. 

How do they do it? Offensive rebounds. Despite shooting an unimpressive 33.3% from the field and 20% from the three in their Elite Eight win against Oregon State, the Gamecocks crashed the boards to come up with 51 rebounds — 22 of them offensive — and advance to the Final Four. South Carolina is entirely unaffected by poor shooting performances because rebounders like center Kamilla Cardoso create chance after chance for players with a rusty shot. 

Foul trouble is a non-issue for this deep bench that can perform with confidence in high-pressure situations. Nine players average over 15 minutes per game, and seven of those nine average over eight points per game. In short, the South Carolina bench is effective. Even if the Gamecocks star center and projected first-round draft pick Cardoso gets into foul trouble, Ashlyn Watkins matches Cardoso’s presence under the basket, as she grabbed 14 rebounds against Oregon State. 

In addition to Cardoso and Watkins in the post, look out for guards Te-Hina Paopao and MiLaysia Fulwiley who have proven themselves reliable scorers. Guard Raven Johnson might not show up on the scoreboard, but she quietly creates opportunities for teammates, leading the Gamecocks in both assists and steals. 

Head coach Dawn Staley looks to her bench regularly for a change of pace and did so to dash Oregon State’s hopes at a second-half comeback. With Staley’s bench on the court, South Carolina went on a 10-0 run in the third quarter to shut down the Beavers. Any player on the South Carolina roster could be a game-changer, making it difficult for opponents to create a comprehensive game plan that will silence the Gamecocks. 

South Carolina averages 85.6 points per game — third in the nation. But after the Gamecocks’ poor shooting performance against Oregon State and NC State’s exceptional shooting versus Texas, this Final Four game is bound to be a showdown between the bigs of South Carolina and the guards of NC State. 

What will it take to beat South Carolina? Offensive efficiency and confidence. NC State has both. South Carolina’s dominance on the boards allows few second-chance points for their opponents, so every shot matters for the Wolfpack if they want to end the Gamecocks’ tournament run. Since South Carolina’s offensive scoring is unparalleled, NC State can’t afford to play sloppy defense. 

NC State Wolfpack 

You might think you’ve found an underdog in NC State, a team that started its season unranked and picked to finish eighth in the ACC preseason poll. However, with early wins over top-tier teams like UConn and Colorado, this team proved itself quickly and has been proving itself ever since. Their secret to success in this tournament is Aziaha James

NC State has been a second-quarter team this tournament. This is where they dominated against both No. 6 Tennessee and No. 1 Texas. Against No. 2 Stanford, NC State pulled ahead in the third quarter and led throughout the fourth. The Wolfpack will not allow opponents to make early runs, and they keep their cool even when trailing top-ranked teams. NC State keeps their games close and executes offensively with incredible discipline and confidence. 

In the post, center River Baldwin should be able to keep up with Cardoso. Baldwin proved this with her outstanding 16-point second half against Texas and her defense that held Stanford’s star forward Cameron Brink to just 13 points. However, Baldwin ended her games against Texas and Stanford with four fouls. The NC State center needs to stay disciplined against Cardoso who has a knack for drawing fouls in the paint. 

NC State’s real strength lies outside the paint at the three-point line. Star guard James leads NC State’s offense this tournament. In the team’s Elite Eight win over Texas, James shot 7-9 from the three-point line, adding 27 points to the scoreboard. James also contributed 29 points in the team’s win over Stanford and 22 points against Tennessee. In the face of top-tier defensive teams, James’ shot is indefensible. 

At point guard, Saniya Rivers has no trouble creating opportunities for her teammates. Rivers is a 2022 South Carolina transfer who averages 6.2 rebounds per game. The former Gamecock easily crashes the boards over other guards courtesy of her 6’1” frame. Because her team likes to shoot from deep, Rivers’ height and willingness to chase down a long rebound from the backcourt will help NC State find second-chance points against a South Carolina team that rarely allows them. 

The Wolfpack’s starting five are all reliable scorers; each member of their starting squad averages over 10 points per game. This will bolster NC State against South Carolina’s deep bench and defense that severely limits opponents’ offensive efficiency. 

To end NC State’s run for a National Championship, South Carolina will have to start by securing the three-point line and defending every one of James’ shots. They’ll have to beat NC State to every rebound, limiting the Wolfpack’s shot attempts. NC State is a fearless team with nothing to lose and everything to prove, and they are not intimidated by high-ranked teams. The Wolfpack mindset could be lethal for an experienced South Carolina team that has everything to lose. 

Iowa Hawkeyes 

It is impossible to overstate the Hawkeyes’ impact on women’s basketball. America’s eyes are glued to the screen each time projected first-overall draft pick and NCAA all-time leading scorer Caitlin Clark steps on the court. Not only has she broken scoring records while shooting incredible percentages well beyond the arc, but she is also a selfless player who sets teammates up for success, averaging nine assists per game

Iowa got vengeance on No. 3 LSU in an Elite Eight rematch of last year’s championship game. Clark profited off successful screens from teammates, scoring her usual 41 points. Clark’s teammates hustled to get open courtesy of off-ball movement and screens, adding 12 assists to the star guard’s stat sheet. Iowa’s offense is a well-oiled machine that likes a fast pace and off-ball movement. The team averages 91.1 points per game — the most in the nation. If the Hawkeyes can keep this momentum on offense, they have a real shot at outscoring the UConn Huskies for a trip to the championship game. 

The Hawkeyes are no one-woman team. Iowa’s guards gained confidence in the postseason, relying less on Clark’s assists to put the ball in the net and creating their own opportunities instead. Guard Sydney Affolter averages 8.3 points per game but improved to 13 points per game in the postseason. This was an essential adjustment for Iowa whose dependency on Clark’s star power had commentators doubting a Hawkeye national championship. 

Kate Martin is Iowa’s team leader. Martin added 21 points in Iowa’s win over LSU and shot 4-4 from the line. She’ll step up if UConn stops Clark. Martin is not afraid to drive through the paint and draw the foul for her team. Most importantly — she’ll make the free throw every time. 

Hannah Stuelke is not your typical forward. Considering her role as the Hawkeyes’ sole presence in the paint, the forward only averages 6.8 rebounds per game. She steps up on the boards when her team needs it, grabbing 11 rebounds in their near-loss to West Virginia, but Stuelke’s real game lies with her shot. Stuelke is the team’s second-leading scorer and boasts a 62.5% field goal average5th overall. Defensively, she’ll need to take a few charges and stay out of foul trouble to make a real impact against UConn. 

Iowa is a team of guards. Their best games are played outside the paint and behind the arc. This is the team’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. As long as they can outpace UConn by raining threes, Iowa’s limited defensive presence under the rim shouldn’t be a problem. 

To earn a win against the nation’s favorites, UConn will need quick feet to get around screens on defense and an endless reserve of resilience when Clark drains back-to-back threes with a hand in her face. Despite her speed and agility, LSU’s Hailey Van Lith proved that getting around Iowa’s screens is a tough ask, so UConn will want to learn from head coach Kim Mulkey’s mistake in that matchup. 

UConn Huskies 

In his 39 seasons at UConn, head coach Geno Auriemma has led the Huskies to 22 Final Fours and won four consecutive National Championship titles from 2012-2016. Since that string of tournament wins the Huskies appeared in only one championship game. This team is hungry for another. 

On a mission to revisit Auriemma’s glory days, the Huskies bounced back from one of the worst starts in program history. They lost five players to injury this season and have shouldered the weight of star guard Paige Bueckers’ return to the game after a season-ending ACL tear in August 2022. This UConn team is nothing if not resilient. 

Bueckers regularly waltzes between three and four bodies in the paint drawing fouls and finishing through contact with ease. Averaging 28 points per game in the postseason, Bueckers makes tough shots. Bueckers is a threat for teams that lack a presence in the paint and a kiss of death for opponents prone to foul trouble. With her 5’11” frame and average 2.3 steals per game, Bueckers is an obvious choice to throw a wrench in Clark’s offense. 

UConn, like Iowa, benefits from the leadership of a basketball superstar. But the Huskies are not a one-woman show either. Forward Aaliyah Edwards along with guards Nika Mühl and KK Arnold compete to top the team’s stat sheet. Edwards creates opportunities for her teammates, averaging 9.3 rebounds per game. The forward also makes her presence known on the scoreboard. She added 24 points to their Elite Eight upset over No. 1 USC. In a matchup against Stuelke, Edwards wins. 

Against USC, Mühl had eight assists — an honest representation of her average 6.5 assists per game which is seventh overall. Mühl is more a playmaker than a scorer, but her assists will help level the playing field with Clark’s golden passing at the other end of the court. On defense, Mühl plays physically while skirting around foul trouble. 

Arnold averages 2.3 steals per game. Though the guard didn’t take the ball from a Trojan in the Elite Eight, she had no trouble stealing the ball five times from Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. A first-year with little experience, Arnold is a wildcard, but she’ll be a real threat if can push through the pressure. 

For a team that seems to do it all, UConn can’t make free throws. If the Iowa matchup turns into a foul-fest in the final minutes, turn off the TV and go to bed because the Hawkeyes have won. As a team, UConn averages 74.9% at the line, but individually, Arnold shoots 66.7% and Mühl a shocking 57.1%. With percentages that low, these two are a liability on the court in the final minutes of a close game. 

To beat the Huskies, Iowa will have to stay out of foul trouble while defending the paint against Bueckers’ drives. The Hawkeyes will want to take charges and put Bueckers in foul trouble. If Iowa can hang tight through UConn’s second-half burst of energy, they’ll capitalize when the Huskies run out of steam in the final minutes of the fourth quarter as they often do. 


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