DALLAS — In one of the most talked about and highly anticipated matchups in women’s Final Four history, Dawn Staley’s undefeated South Carolina team will face Iowa and dynamic guard Caitlin Clark.
Staley and the Gamecocks are looking to become the 10th team to go through a season unbeaten and the first to repeat as champions since UConn won four in a row from 2013-16.
The Gamecocks (36-0) have the best defense in the country, which is anchored by Aliyah Boston, and they will face a stiff test against the high-powered offense led by Clark, named The Associated Press Player of the Year, when they play Friday night.
Despite the buzz, Staley said her team is focusing on the task at hand.
“The juice is in the winning the national championship,” she said. “Our players don’t really care about anything besides that. So we are — again — we’re strong in our beliefs and what we do and how we’ve done things. And at this point, we just want to win, and that’s their approach. I love them for that. They’re not letting any one thing or any one person distract them from the goal at hand.”
Clark also downplayed the talk around the individual matchup of her and Boston, the last two AP Player of the Year winners.
“It’s going to be Iowa versus South Carolina, and that’s who’s going to win the game,” Clark said. “It’s not going to be one player who’s going to win the game. I’m lucky enough to have four really good teammates on the court with me at the same time.”
Clark has put on quite a show since coming to Iowa (30-6). She led the nation in scoring twice and last weekend had a game for the ages, recording the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA history to lead the Hawkeyes to their first Final Four in 30 years.
This national semifinal has everything that women’s basketball could hope for, with the stars on the court and a team trying to secure its place in history — something that’s missing at the men’s Final Four this season.
The winner will face either LSU or Virginia Tech in the championship game Sunday night. Ticket prices for the women’s Final Four are going for more than the men’s games four hours away in Houston.
Clark was happy to see the attention being paid to the women’s games, but she was quick to point out that the women’s games are being played in a basketball arena while the men’s national semifinals are at a football stadium, which are much larger.
“I think it shows the demand that people want to be here and be in the arena that seats 20,000 people,” she said. “More than anything, I’m just lucky and we’re just lucky to get to play on a stage in front of so many people that love the game and want to watch our game.”
South Carolina has had great history in Dallas, winning its first national championship in 2017 in the same arena it is playing in this weekend. The Gamecocks, who have now been to three straight Final Fours, beat Mississippi State in the title game in 2017 after the Bulldogs had ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak in the semifinals.
“I love Dallas. Dallas is where we got our first national championship,” Staley said. “I just remember obviously the Dallas police officers, the motorcade. They get us where we need to go. It’s super cool seeing that, and it’s super cool to experience that again. I just remember the shot that beat UConn and then having to play — having an all-SEC national championship game.”
SHOOTING FROM AFAR
Clark is known for her pinpoint passing and her deep 3-point shooting. She has made over a dozen 3-pointers from 30 feet or more in her career.
“Those are shots I practice, and I shoot them in practice, too,” Clark said. “I think it all just stems from the confidence of the work I’ve put in. Honestly, I would say it’s more so come with being in college more than anything.”
RETURN TO THE BIG STAGE
No one on Iowa’s roster was alive the last time that the Hawkeyes reached the Final Four. C. Vivian Stringer was the coach of that team in 1993 that lost to Ohio State in overtime.
Stringer left a voicemail for coach Lisa Bluder after her team advanced this far.
“It wasn’t a text, it was a voice message, which tells you the age of both of us,” Bluder said. “Who leaves voice messages anymore? But I love voice messages because you can hear the enthusiasm in their voice versus reading it on a text, and she definitely had a lot of enthusiasm.
“Her love for the Hawks is strong, and I’m thankful — you were talking about mentors, and for the players, Vivian was certainly one of mine. So I’m very thankful to have her support as the last person that took this team to a Final Four. That really means a lot.”
***Story and photo courtesy of ABC News***