South Carolina and Iowa Headline a Blockbuster Final Four Clash

The teams’ meeting on Friday night will put into opposition two different approaches to the game.

By Laura Fay

Before Aliyah Boston had even cut her piece of the net in South Carolina’s Elite Eight victory over Maryland, the hype had begun. While speculation was subdued before the Elite Eight clashes (perhaps in fear of jinxing the outcome), diehard fans circled this potential Final Four clash the day the draw was released: South Carolina vs. Iowa. 

When the two teams meet Friday night, it won’t just be two of the nation’s best teams facing off. It will be the country’s most stalwart defense against its most electric offense, the nation’s most prolific two-way player against its deadliest shooter, both of whom now have Naismith Player of the Year titles. It will also match up two passionate fan bases with strong opinions over which Player of the Year honoree is more deserving. One team comes in with a 36–0 unbeaten streak as they try to become back-to-back champions, while the other has its sights set on a first-ever championship game appearance. It’s already one of the fiercest rivalries in college basketball, and this will be their ever first meeting.

So that’s what’s at stake this Friday. As we prepare for what looks primed to be a record-setting game, let’s break down what each side needs to do to move on in Dallas. 

Keys to Win: South Carolina

Limit Iowa’s Supporting Cast

One of South Carolina’s biggest strengths is their depth. When the starters begin to flag, Dawn Staley can put in a similarly deadly lineup to hold down the fort while they recover. It’s one of the reasons Aliyah Boston hasn’t needed to play a full 40 all season. If you had 6′ 7″ Kamilla Cardoso, who nearly averaged a double-double this season as a backup option, why wouldn’t you give her extended minutes? That second unit helped put away their Elite Eight contest against Maryland. With star Terps in foul trouble early, Cardoso and co. were able to dominate a small lineup and outscore Maryland 23–9 in what ended up being the decisive second quarter. 

Iowa, Maryland’s Big 10 rival, has the same vulnerabilities. While Caitlin Clark is outstanding, Iowa has gotten this far only because the supporting cast has stepped up around her. Gabbie Marshall and MaKenna Warnock raised their game at critical moments and were the only Hawkeyes besides Clark to score double-digits in their Elite Eight game against Louisville. South Carolina has one of the best perimeter defenses in the country, led by senior Brea Beal. If she can limit the Hawkeyes’ talent off the bench, it will be a challenge for Clark to win the game herself, no matter how good she is. 

Make your Threes

The one category South Carolina hasn’t been dominant in this season is their three-point shot. The Gamecocks are 31.5% from deep, compared to the Hawkeyes’ near 38%. South Carolina doesn’t need threes to win games; their dominance in the paint carried them to their unbeaten record. But in a close game, it sure does take the wind out of their opponent’s sails. That was again apparent against Maryland. 

After halftime, the Terps had their best players back on the floor and began chipping into South Carolina’s double-digit lead. As soon as the first three fell, that was all over. The Gamecocks are already a tough team to guard without contending for a three-point shot. If they start heating up from deep, there’s nothing the opponent’s defense can do to guard them without opening up easy driving lanes in the paint. For Iowa, already not a defense-first team, a South Carolina that’s hitting their threes will be nearly impossible to stop. 

Utilize Aliyah Boston

Boston’s numbers might have dipped this year, but make no mistake: she is the best two-way player in the country. The presumptive No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, Boston can quietly take over a game before an opponent notices she’s gotten away from them. She reminded everybody of that last week against Maryland, racking up a 22pt/10 reb double-double against a Terps lineup that couldn’t contain her. 

Operating in the post will be critical for Boston against the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s starting center, Monika Czinano, is strong and has a good finish, but she isn’t known for her defense. If playing on Czinano, Boston should be able to use her length and agility to finish around her. Those numbers will likely prove vital. Boston has yet to rack up as many points as last year, partly because the scoring burden has shifted more onto Zia Cooke and partly because South Carolina’s defense can decimate even the most efficient offenses. But against Clark and the highest-scoring offense in the country, Boston’s numbers will be critical to beat the Hawkeyes at their own game. 

Keys to Win: Iowa

Five Shooters 

Iowa thrives on its biggest strengths: shotmaking and pace. The Hawkeyes lead the nation in points per game, and while it’s hard to understate Caitlin Clark’s role in obtaining that stat, she’s not always the one making shots. 

One marked improvement in Clark’s game over her college career is her willingness to pass and find the best shot possible. In this tournament especially, her court vision has been unparalleled as she’s been able to pick out Gabbie Marshall and McKenna Warnock from wherever they’ve found an opening. The South Carolina defense will undoubtedly test that vision, but if Iowa can move the ball fast and directly, they could catch the Gamecocks a step slow. Clark draws at least two defenders wherever she goes, meaning there will always be an open player. Iowa’s best shot is to move the ball so quickly that South Carolina doesn’t have time to shift off Clark to defend it. 

Keep Czinano out of Foul Trouble 

Monika Czinano is the most efficient post player in the country and (after Clark) Iowa’s most reliable player. At 6′ 3″, she’s also one of the only Iowa players who can compete with South Carolina in the post. Unfortunately, that strength often comes with foul trouble. Czinano is no stranger to getting booked; she fouled out in the Hawkeye’s Elite Eight match-up versus Louisville. But on Friday, Iowa will need Czinano in the game more than ever. South Carolina builds their game off rebounding—they averaged nearly 50 a game in the regular season and demolished Maryland off the boards last week. On a team with the worst defensive rating of any to make the Final Four, Czinano is Iowa’s best chance to disrupt in the post and earn her team more possessions. 

But if Czinano gets into foul trouble, that puts freshman Hannah Stuelke into the game in her place. Stuelke has had an impressive freshman season but lacks experience and a clinical finish. Stuelke is especially weak from the free throw line, where she shoots just 46%. Against a team that’s not afraid to be physical, Iowa needs to have their better shooters get to the line. That means Czinano needs to step up big. 

Caitlin Clark off the Glass

No matter what the Gamecocks do defensively, Caitlin Clark will get hers. The newly crowned player of the year, Clark is coming off of a remarkable 40-point triple-double, the first and only in NCAA history. If Clark is on the court, she’s a scoring threat. 

Clark has come into her own this season, scoring and assisting with ease to carry her team through the tournament. She scored or assisted 70 of Iowa’s 97 points against Louisville, a mind-boggling show of one-woman dominance. On Friday, Clark must be just as stellar in those categories, but her rebounding may prove the most vital. 

South Carolina is a defensive-minded, rebounding-focused team. Against Maryland, Terps fans were almost hoping the Gamecocks made their free throws, as when they missed, they almost always rebounded and put away. Most of Clark’s rebounds this season have been off the defensive glass. If she can cut into South Carolina’s second-chance points, even a little, she gives her offensive juggernaut of a team more possessions to assert their dominance. 

South Carolina and Iowa will face off on Friday, March 31st at 9 p.m. EST on ESPN. 

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