This year’s March Madness has lived up to the hype, with defending NCAA champions — the No. 1-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks — riding a 42-game win streak dating back to the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship. Also back for this weekend’s tournament finale are the Louisiana State Tigers, back in the women’s Final Four for the first time in 15 years, and the Iowa Hawkeyes, who are dancing for the first time in three decades and boast the nation’s top player in Caitlin Clark. The top-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies round out the Final Four, where they’ll play in the semis for the first time ever.
Of note, this year’s Final Four, set for Friday at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, marks the first time in 38 years without any of the sport’s longtime powerhouses — Tennessee, Stanford and UConn. Even South Carolina, who also won the title in 2017 and is making its third consecutive Final Four appearance, is a relative newcomer to tournament greatness: The Gamecocks made their first-ever Final Four appearance just eight years ago.
The fresh lineup — headlined by a matchup of the game’s top stars in South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston and Iowa guard Clark — is an opportunity to celebrate the women’s game and its depth of talent more widely, said Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley on Thursday.
“It’s great,” she told media from Dallas. “It’s been building towards this for a long time. Fortunately for us — not just South Carolina, but us as women’s basketball — we’ve got a lot of star power behind our sport. It increases. [Along with Aliyah Boston and Caitlin Clark), you’ve got Angel Reese; you’ve got [Georgia] Amoore; you’ve got [Elizabeth] Kitley. You’ve got all these players who have been incredible, just incredible — creating incredible stories for our game.”
Speaking of storylines to follow, Friday’s double-header kicks off at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN) with No. 1 seed Virginia Tech squaring off vs. No. 3 LSU. The Hokies haven’t lost a game since January, while the Tigers will aim to match the lowest seed ever to win the women’s tournament. The only two teams to have won before as the No. 3 seed are North Carolina in 1994 and Tennessee in 1997.
Drawing the biggest buzz to date is Friday night’s second semifinal, where the overall No. 1 seed South Carolina faces the formidable No. 2-seeded Iowa. In the Hawkeyes’ last game against Louisville, Clark set a new tournament record when she notched 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the first-ever, 40-point triple-double in the NCAA tournament — women’s or men’s.
Clark said afterward that Iowa’s first Final Four since 1993 was the product of a very “Ted Lasso” principle: “When I came here, I said I wanted to take this program to the Final Four, and all you gotta do is dream,” she said. “Then all you gotta do is believe and work your butt off to get there.”
RELATED: Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship
No. 3 LSU
Current record: 32-2
Season wrap: LSU finished the regular season 27-1, tying the best regular-season record in program history, matching the 2004-05 team. That LSU team reached the Final Four, but fell to Kim Mulkey’s Baylor team en route to her first national championship as a head coach.
Final Four outlook: LSU is making its sixth Final Four appearance in program history and its first since 2008, which marked the last of five consecutive Final Four appearances for the Tigers with players like Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles. Despite all of LSU’s previous success in reaching the Final Four, the Tigers have never won a national semifinal.
Probable starters: Angel Reese (F), LaDazhia Williams (F), Flau’jae Johnson (G), Kateri Poole (G), Alexis Morris (G)
About coach Kim Mulkey: This year marks Mulkey’s fourth Final Four appearance as a head coach. She holds a 3-1 record in national semifinal games and won three national championships as the head coach at Baylor. She’s the only person in men’s or women’s DI history to win national championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
Spotlight on… Angel Reese: Reese, a transfer from Maryland, set an SEC record with her 32nd double-double of the season in the Elite Eight. Through four games in the NCAA Tournament, she’s averaging 22.3 points and 17.3 rebounds. She was extra dominant in the first two rounds, where she averaged 29.5 points, 19.5 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 3.0 assists and 3.0 steals. In LSU’s opening-round game against Hawaii, Reese tied Fowles’ LSU NCAA Tournament record with 34 points. In the second round, she became the first player to ever record 25 points and 24 rebounds (an LSU NCAA Tournament record) in a NCAA Tournament game.
Coach’s last word: “Last thing I shared with them in the middle of the floor was, you’re getting ready to play a No. 1 seed. We’ve not done that,” Mulkey told reporters in Dallas on Tuesday. “You’re getting ready to play a young lady who is the finalist for not one but two awards. We don’t have anybody on our team that’s a finalist for any award. Are we satisfied? Are we patting ourselves on the back and saying, ‘Hey, this is as far as we can go, or are you still hungry?’ And the responses that I received are, ‘Coach, we’re ready to move on and get to the next game.’
“When you have kids that are hungry and not satisfied to just be there, you’re going to go compete. Whether we win or lose, I know we will compete.”
No. 1 Virginia Tech
Current record: 31-4
Season wrap: This was a season of firsts for the Hokies, who are making their first Final Four appearance in program history after making their Elite Eight debut this past Monday night. The season also marked the first time recording 31 wins in a single season and the first time that Tech has had a two-time ACC Player of the Year.
Final Four outlook: The Hokies’s win in the Elite Eight over Ohio State moved VT to 13-11 in NCAA Tournament games (12 appearances) and marked their 15th consecutive victory, tying their longest win streak since they won 15 straight to open head coach Kenny Brooks‘ tenure at Virginia Tech. Tech is a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history, and their semifinal matchup vs. LSU will be their fourth. Tech owns a 1-2 record all-time vs. the Tigers, and the two sides last met Nov. 14, 2006, with LSU winning 70-40 in Baton Rouge, La.
Probable starters: Taylor Soule (F), Elizabeth Kitley (C), Georgia Amoore (G), Cayla King (G), Kayan Taylor (G)
About coach Kenny Brooks: Brooks is closing out his seventh season with Virginia Tech, which is 155-73 since he joined as head coach in March 2016 and 5-2 in NCAA Tournament games. Brooks is just the third Black male coach to lead a team to the Final Four, joining Winthrop “Windy” McGriff with Cheyney in 1984 and Syracuse’s Quentin Hillsman in 2016. In 2022, Brooks led the Hokies to a program record with 13 ACC victories and five ranked wins, and the team advanced to the ACC Tournament Semifinals for the first time ever.
Spotlight on… Elizabeth Kitley: In her last outing, Kitley scored a game-high 25 points, 11 rebounds and had three blocks, marking her 21st double-double of the season and 56th of her career. She now owns the program record for double-doubles and was recently named second-team All-American. On the season, the two-time ACC Player of the Year, who hails from Summerfield, N.C., is averaging 18.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game this season while shooting 56% from the floor.
Coach’s last word: “I knew we had the talent this summer, and watching them and how quickly they were starting to gel,” Brooks told reporters Tuesday. “They weren’t a cohesive unit during the summer, but we knew we had the makings of it just because we had so many mature kids. And then really we hit our stride obviously with the winning streak (10-0 to start the season), but when we lost to Duke (on Jan. 26), we learned a lot about ourselves. There was no yelling in the locker room after that game. I told the kids, ‘Let this sting. We’ll get another opportunity to play them,’ and I said, ‘Don’t let it bother us. Let it kick us forward.’
“From that moment, the look in their eyes, they’ve been pure professionals. They’ve gone out, everyone understands their roles, and they’ve done them, and they’ve starred in their roles. The way these kids play for each other is something special.”
Past champions of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship
|2022||South Carolina (36-2)||Dawn Staley||64-49||Connecticut||Minneapolis, Minnesota|
|2021||Stanford (31-2)||Tara VanderVeer||54-53||Arizona||San Antonio, Texas|
|2020||Baylor (37-1)||Kim Mulkey||82-81||Notre Dame||Tampa, Florida|
|2019||Notre Dame (34-3)||Muffet McGraw||61-58||Mississippi State||Columbus, Ohio|
|2018||South Carolina (33-4)||Dawn Staley||67-55||Mississippi State||Dallas, Texas|
For a complete list of champions, visit NCAA.com.
No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes
Current record: 30-6
Season wrap: With its win over Louisville in the Elite Eight, Iowa set a program record for the most wins in a single season as the Hawkeyes prepare for their second Final Four in school history. Earlier this season, Iowa won its third Big Ten Tournament title since 2019, beating Ohio State by largest margin of victory in BTT Championship history (33 points). Iowa’s 87.6 points per game this regular season is the best in program history, and the Hawkeyes’ made 313 three-pointers this season set a Big Ten Conference record, eclipsing the prior mark set by Ohio State (300) in 2017-18. Iowa leads the nation in points per game, assists per game (21.1) and field goal percentage (50.9).
Final Four outlook: The Hawkeyes were tabbed a No. 2 seed for the fifth time in school history, and they hold a 13-4 record in the NCAA Tournament on the No. 2 Seed line.This will be the second meeting between the two programs, which met on Dec. 28, 1989, in the “Super Shootout Basketball Tournament” in Hilton Head, S.C. No. 20 ranked South Carolina beat No. 4 Iowa 82-76.
Probable starters: McKenna Warnock (F), Monika Czinano (F), Caitlin Clark (G), Gabbie Marshall (G), Kate Martin (G)
About coach Lisa Bluder: Bluder ranks fourth all-time among Division I active coaches with 849 career wins (first among Big Ten active coaches), and she’s also the all-time leader for Big Ten regular season conference wins with 247. The Hawkeyes have made postseason tournament appearances in 21 of Bluder’s 23 seasons at Iowa, receiving 17 NCAA Tournament and four WNIT (2003, 2005, 2016, 2017) bids, including four Sweet 16 appearances.
Spotlight on… Caitlin Clark: Tabbed as the Naismith National Player of the Year on Wednesday, Clark became the first player in DI women’s basketball history to notch a 950-point and 300-assist single season. This season, Clark added to her Big Ten Conference record with her 11th career triple-double in Iowa’s Elite Eight win over Louisville, tying for second-most in NCAA women’s basketball history. She joined Marquette men’s basketball All-American Dwyane Wade as the only NCAA Division I players since 1999-2000 with a triple-double against an AP Top-2 opponent when she accomplished the feat in January vs. a then-No. 2-ranked Ohio State (Wade did it vs. No. 1 Kentucky in the 2003 NCAA Tournament), finishing with 28 points, 10 rebounds and a season-high 15 assists, the latter total tying for the third-most assists ever in a conference game. Clark’s stretch this season of four consecutive 20-point, 10-assist games is the most by a Division I player in the past 20 seasons (Jan. 11-23). Her 11 career triple-doubles is the most by a male or female in Big Ten history.
Coach’s last word: “America gets to see two fabulous, spectacular basketball players in the same 40 minutes with (Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston). It doesn’t get a lot better than that,” Bluder told media earlier this week. She followed up Thursday by adding, “I’ve been coming to the Final Four for a long, long time, but my seats are finally going to be pretty good tonight. So I’m excited about that. … I’m just trying to convince my team 40 minutes of basketball and a lifetime of memories, and that’s all we have to focus on.”
No. 1 South Carolina
Current record: 36-0
Season wrap: The Gamecocks opened this season atop both the AP and the USA Today/WBCA Coaches’ Polls for the third time in as many seasons and have remained there. Going wire-to-wire in the AP Poll in back-to-back seasons, South Carolina joins UConn and Louisiana Tech as the only programs to do so in the history of that poll.
Final Four outlook: The Gamecocks have played in the NCAA Final Four five times in the last eight NCAA Tournaments, including winning the 2017 and 2022 National Championships. This year marks South Carolina’s 19th NCAA Tournament appearance and its 11th straight under head coach Dawn Staley. They hold 44-16 record overall in the tournament with 13 Sweet 16 appearances and seven Elite Eight showings.
Probable starters: Aliya Boston (F), Victaria Saxton (F), Brea Beal (G), Zia Cooke (G), Kierra Fletcher (G)
About coach Dawn Staley: In her 23rd season as a head coach, Staley has a .756 (574-185) winning percentage, which ranks ninth in the nation among active head coaches with at least 10 seasons of experience and seventh among those with at least 20 years in the position. The unanimous 2020 National Coach of the Year, she became the first person to win both a Naismith Player of the Year and a Naismith Coach of the Year and the first Black head coach to win multiple national championships in men’s or women’s basketball. She has been named national coach of the year by at least one organization four times, including three times in the last four seasons.
Spotlight on… Aliya Boston: Boston, who earned Naismith Defensive Player of the Year honors this week, is just the fifth four-time AP All-American in the history of the award and just the 10th player to earn first-team honors at least three times. She is the first multi-year winner of the Lisa Leslie Award, vying for the award for a fourth time this season. She’s also a four-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year and two-time SEC Player of the Year. Additionally, Boston is the GAmecocks’ record holder with 1,483 rebounds (fourth in the SEC, 16th in NCAA), 514 offensive rebounds, 969 defensive rebounds, 82 double-doubles (second in the SEC; eighth in NCAA) and 137 consecutive games started. Her 329 career blocked shots are second in program history and sixth in the SEC.
Coach’s last word: “I feel pressure,” Staley told reporters Tuesday. “Pressure for our team to be successful, pressure to have our team perform as they performed all season long, pressure as a Black coach to win. Then just the pressures that come with being the No. 1 team, being the No. 1 overall seed. You don’t think it impacts you, but it does. It’s not the driving force, though. It’s not the very thing that I say, ‘I feel this pressure.’ I don’t feel it in that way. I feel it in that I don’t want to let whoever’s looking at us in a way that lends hope to them. I don’t want to let our fans down. I want what this team is supposed to have. Obviously we think it’s a national championship, and there lies more pressure to win.”