Predicting the women’s title game: Will Clark’s Iowa upset South Carolina again?

Predicting the women’s title game: Will Clark’s Iowa upset South Carolina again?
  • ESPN

Apr 6, 2024, 06:55 PM ET

CLEVELAND — After Iowa won to advance to the women’s NCAA title game, where it will face South Carolina, nearly every question directed to coach Lisa Bluder and Hawkeyes Caitlin Clark and Hannah Stuelke at their postgame news conference contained some variation of “This is the matchup everybody wanted.”

Yes, Sunday’s national championship (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App) is The Rematch. Last season, behind 41 points from Clark, Iowa upset heavily favored and then-undefeated South Carolina in the national semifinals. Here they are a year later, the Gamecocks unbeaten again and trying to become the 10th women’s team to run the table.

It’s the dominant team vs. the dominant player. The undefeated season vs. the storybook ending to one of the sport’s most remarkable careers. Iowa again stands in the way of South Carolina putting the finishing touches on a perfect season.

So how will Sunday play out? ESPN’s Andrea Adelson, Katie Barnes, Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou, Jake Trotter and Michael Voepel break down the championship game and predict who will cut down the nets in Cleveland on Sunday.

Iowa’s strategy last year was to lay off South Carolina’s perimeter shooters, but the Gamecocks shoot the 3-pointer well now. How will Iowa adapt?

Barnes: Iowa is going to be in the position everyone is against South Carolina: Pick your poison. If the Hawkeyes get out to pressure the 3-point line a little bit, they might be vulnerable to inside looks, where they have considerably less size. Kamilla Cardoso, South Carolina’s 6-foot-7 center, feasted against NC State on Friday, hanging 22 points and 11 boards on the Wolfpack. But Ashlyn Watkins came off the bench and grabbed 20 rebounds as well. Iowa will struggle to keep up if those two have a repeat performance down low, no matter what’s going on at the 3-point line.

Voepel: It sounds simplistic, but one of the best elements of Iowa’s defense in this game might be its offense. If the Hawkeyes are able to keep the game close, it will energize their defense. But they also have to work together cohesively. And realize that rebounding against South Carolina is a little like going against a big server in tennis: You do the best you can to keep up and don’t get frustrated.


How will South Carolina’s strategy change? What might South Carolina do differently than it did a year ago?

Voepel: South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said she wasn’t going to watch film of last season’s semifinal to prepare for Sunday, but she doesn’t need to. She remembers what worked and what didn’t. She also saw how UConn defended Clark on Friday: intense guarding from Nika Muhl, trapping when Clark picked up her dribble and having posts stand tall in the lane to stop her penetration. Staley knows what aspects of that approach South Carolina also can use.

Clark was on fire in last year’s semifinal, so one of the most important things for the Gamecocks is limiting her influence early on as much as possible. The Gamecocks also know, though, that UConn held Clark to six points in the first half Friday but that she still finished with 21 and Iowa won.

Philippou: Beyond the X’s and O’s, this is the matchup the Gamecocks have been hoping for all tournament, maybe even all year. Raven Johnson said she watched the film from last year’s national semifinal 100 times. Bree Hall said she perhaps watched it even more. Staley said it didn’t feel like “day care” Saturday morning during their film session (a term she has used several times describing this young team), meaning that instead of being loose and playful, the group was noticeably locked in.

The Gamecocks don’t need motivation going into the national championship game; there’s a title on the line, regardless of the opponent. But getting a chance to flip the script from last year’s devastating upset is further fueling their focus and fire.


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1:34

Relive the best moments from Iowa’s and South Carolina’s runs to the title game

Check out the top moments from Iowa and South Carolina in their runs to the national championship game.

After getting blanketed for most of Friday by Nika Muhl, will Caitlin Clark have enough left in the tank?

Creme: Fatigue seemed to play a role in Clark’s championship game performance against LSU last year. She settled and didn’t attack as much, taking 19 of her 22 field goal attempts from 3-point range. Less than half of her shots came from distance against the Gamecocks. That game wasn’t nearly as physically demanding as what Muhl and the Huskies put Clark through. She was bumped and grabbed repeatedly and had to work hard on every possession just to get the ball back. It would be interesting to know how many miles of running Clark got in Friday. That takes its toll even with a day in between games.

Trotter: Even though Clark finished with 21 points, Muhl did a tremendous job denying her the ball and taking her out of her game. South Carolina has several bodies it can throw at Clark. But will the Gamecocks assign one defender to hound Clark the way UConn did with Muhl? Probably not. The Gamecocks will likely try to tire Clark out by running multiple players at her. But it’s difficult to envision anyone doing a better job than Muhl, who made Clark work just to touch the ball. Even against the Gamecocks, Clark could end up with more and better opportunities to find a groove to try to keep the Hawkeyes in the game.


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1:29

The numbers behind Iowa and South Carolina’s title game matchup

Check out some stats as Iowa is set to face off with undefeated South Carolina for a chance at an NCAA title.

What can Iowa do to offset South Carolina’s size advantage, specifically Kamilla Cardoso?

Creme: The Hawkeyes can probably afford for Cardoso to get her points if they maximize their strengths on the other end — ball movement, transition buckets, 3-point shooting — and limit the scoring of the other South Carolina frontcourt players, like Watkins, Chloe Kitts and Sania Feagin. When Iowa is on offense, the Gamecocks’ size shouldn’t be as much of a factor. LSU’s wasn’t. The Hawkeyes’ player and ball movement forced the Tigers’ bigs to shift and chase, leaving openings for Clark to get to the rim. Iowa should be able to do something similar Sunday. The Hawkeyes substantially lost the rebounding battle against LSU and comfortably won the game. It won’t be as simple against South Carolina, but if Iowa maximizes its strengths, the size disadvantage won’t be as impactful.

Philippou: It wasn’t how the team beat South Carolina last year (Clark made 10 of her 15 field goals inside the arc), but Iowa’s best shot is if it can hit a bunch of 3s. In those close games the Gamecocks played in Albany, their opponents won the battle at the 3-point arc — Indiana hit 13 3s to the Gamecocks’ 8, Oregon State had 8 to South Carolina’s 4. The Hawkeyes have the ability to do that if Clark rediscovers her efficiency after Friday’s tough start — she missed her first seven 3-point attempts — and she’ll likely also need to generate more than 18 shot attempts. And it would be helpful if Iowa gets some others chipping in, particularly Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin.

Voepel: Bluder had plenty of good things to say about Cardoso on Saturday.

“Kamilla’s been playing so well, just runs the floor beautifully, rebounds incredibly, shooting the ball well,” Bluder said. “One person can’t stop her. There’s no way. I don’t know if two or three can stop her, to be quite honest. So I’m not going to give that up just to one person to have to try to handle that.”

That said, Bluder has confidence in how well Stuelke, a sophomore post, has played, having to go against LSU’s Angel Reese in the Elite Eight and UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards in the national semifinals.

“She knows she can do it now. Every challenge gets bigger. Look at the challenges she’s had already in this tournament,” Bluder said. “Hannah has grown up throughout this tournament, and she’s going to have an unbelievable challenge [Sunday].

“We’re going to keep pouring into her. We’re going to keep telling her that we believe in her.”


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1:44

Would a title make Caitlin Clark the GOAT?

Monica McNutt explains the reasons she believes Caitlin Clark’s run this season earns her GOAT consideration.

Is Sunday’s game a referendum on Clark’s legacy as a college player?

Voepel: She certainly doesn’t think so, and neither do I. A national championship is the ultimate prize for a college player, but greatness and legacy aren’t defined only by NCAA titles. The list of great women’s hoops players who didn’t win one is enormous, including Hall of Famers such as Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Teresa Edwards, and future Hall entrants like Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles, Nneka Ogwumike and Elena Delle Donne.

Clark has made an enormous impact on the sport. No one has scored more points in Division I in the women’s or men’s games. She has more than 3,000 points and 1,000 assists. She led a program that had been to one Final Four, in 1993, to back-to-back national championship games.

No one is going to outdo UConn’s Breanna Stewart, who won four NCAA titles and was Final Four Most Outstanding Player each time. She’s the gold standard of championship success individually for college players. But she also went to a program that had already won seven national championships before she got there. Clark has been trying to do something Iowa has never done.

Adelson: It should not be, but the fact we are even having this conversation is good for the game. Debating a player’s place in history is something we do as sports reporters and sports fans. It’s what builds our passion but also our interest. Clark has drawn casual fans into this debate, and while they might not have the appropriate history or perspective about the entire game in general, having this conversation isn’t about selling Clark short. It’s about answering a question that has vexed sports enthusiasts since the beginning of time: Do you have to win a championship to be considered among the best?

I grew up a Miami Dolphins fan, and Dan Marino was my favorite player. But there’s an asterisk next to his name despite all the yards and wins. He never won a Super Bowl. Is he still one of the greatest quarterbacks? Sure. Is he an all-timer? That’s the debate.

The fact Dawn Staley acknowledged that she had a great career and never won a championship indicates she feels there’s a little something missing next to her name, too. As a competitor, you want to win. You want to hoist that trophy at the end of the season. Clark has done more than anyone has ever asked of her, and she has handled the spotlight with grace and class. Her impact in growing the game will never be taken from her. But the debate in sports focuses on championships being required to cement a GOAT career, and Clark is going to be held to that standard, too.


Which team will win?

Adelson: Iowa. I feel like a complete waffler here because I chose South Carolina before the tournament started, then changed my mind to Iowa headed into the Final Four. Do I think South Carolina is a team on a mission and has advantages on paper? Yes. Do I think Iowa is also a team on a mission and has a generational player in Clark who scorched the Gamecocks for 41 last year in the national semifinal? Yes. Iowa’s entire team has stepped up in this huge moment. I’m gonna stick with the Hawkeyes to pull the upset.

Barnes: South Carolina. Even though Iowa has the best player on the floor, and I’m normally inclined to honor that, the Gamecocks are the deeper team. In the last game of the season, South Carolina has fresher legs. And the Gamecocks have the size advantage.

Creme: South Carolina. My pick was the Gamecocks coming into the Final Four simply because they have more ways to win than any other team. They can win by being defense- or rebound-heavy with their size advantage with Cardoso, Watkins and Kitts. This year South Carolina is the third-most accurate 3-point shooting team in the country. Staley has five guards in Raven Johnson, Tessa Johnson, MiLaysia Fulwiley, Bree Hall and Te-Hina Paopao to do what Muhl was asked to do against Clark. Iowa has the best player, and that means so much in a one-game setting, but South Carolina has too many answers to the question.

Philippou: South Carolina. The talk of the Albany regional was how South Carolina was tested, and while the Gamecocks played a tight first half versus NC State, the way they took control of the game in the third quarter — and didn’t relinquish the lead — showcased why they’ve been the team to beat all season. If Cardoso asserts herself inside like she did Friday, no one on Iowa will be able to stop her.

Yes, Iowa is at its best when it’s getting contributions from other players outside of Clark, but South Carolina is just so deep, so talented and has so many ways to win; it’ll be too much for the Hawkeyes to overcome. And Iowa will have to play a lot better than it did Friday, when it blew a bunch of layups (starting the game 9-for-18 there) and turned over the ball 12 times in the first half.

Trotter: South Carolina. The Gamecocks didn’t even play that well Friday and still routed NC State. Too much size. Too much rebounding. Too much talent. Clark is a magician and is always capable of going on a scoring barrage. But South Carolina’s depth will prove too much. And the Gamecocks will avenge last year’s defeat to Iowa to capture a second national title in three years.

Voepel: Iowa. Realistically, South Carolina has all the answers to beat Iowa by double digits. No one would dispute that. But I’ve been picking Iowa as an underdog since the Elite Eight and might as well stick with that.

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1:49

Iowa outlasts UConn, advances to NCAA women’s final

Caitlin Clark and Iowa hang on to beat UConn and advance to face South Carolina in the NCAA women’s final.

How the national championship was set

CLEVELAND — In Friday night’s epic showdown between Iowa and UConn, featuring tremendous performances from both sides, an illegal screen call decided the game.

With three seconds to go, officials whistled UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards for a screening foul as she tried to pry teammate Paige Bueckers open for a game-winning shot. Instead, Iowa took possession holding a one-point lead and salted away a 71-69 victory.

The Hawkeyes and star point guard Caitlin Clark, who finished with 21 points, will face undefeated South Carolina for the national championship. The Gamecocks took care of NC State 78-59 earlier Friday to move to 37-0.

How Iowa beat UConn 71-69

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1:04

Andraya Carter on late offensive foul: ‘That call sucked, SVP’

Andraya Carter joins Scott Van Pelt and expresses her dislike for the controversial call at the end of UConn vs. Iowa.

What was key in Iowa’s win?

Perseverance. UConn had a tremendous game plan and made Clark’s life miserable for 40 minutes. But Iowa kept finding ways to score outside its usual method. The Hawkeyes didn’t panic, didn’t get flustered. Clark said all season that she trusts her teammates and that is what she did tonight, specifically Hannah Stuelke. Facing double-teams, aggressive face-guarding and strategic help side defense by the Huskies, Clark looked for Stuelke and the sophomore delivered with the best game of her career, sans her 47-point effort earlier this season against Penn State. Her 23 points came with an efficient 9-of-12 shooting. Nika Mühl harassed Clark into matching her lowest point total of the season and Iowa still found a way. — Creme

What surprised you the most about this game?

How Mühl was able to hold Clark in check for much of the game. Clark finally got going in the third quarter with a four-point play, and she still had seven assists. But before that, Mühl completely hounded Clark, denied her the ball and often picked her up full court. As a result, Clark went 0-of-6 from 3 in the first half while struggling to find space to create. Clark was always going to get her points, but Mühl made her work for them. — Trotter

Who was the most outstanding player?

The Huskies had to give up something with the way they guarded Clark on the perimeter with Muhl and provided help in the lane from Edwards and Brady. That something was Stuelke, and she delivered with those 23 points, the first time someone other than Clark led the Hawkeyes since Stuelke’s 47-point game against Penn State on Feb. 8. Kate Martin, Gabbie Marshall and Sydney Affolter had trouble finishing in the first half with Iowa shooting just 50% on its layups before halftime. In contrast, Stuelke played a calm second half, scoring 15 of her 23 points in the final 20 minutes when Iowa outscored UConn by eight. It’s not often that any Hawkeye could be the player of the game other than Clark, but on this night, Stuelke was clearly that player. — Creme

What will be the legacy of UConn?

This might be the first time since 1991 that UConn making a run to the Final Four could have been considered any sort of surprise. The Huskies were a 3-seed, their lowest seeding since 2005. But even in this era of parity, UConn proved why it can never truly be counted out, even while having a depleted bench because of injury for the third straight season. Edwards and Muhl will move on but Bueckers will return next season, which means the Huskies will likely be a force. — Barnes

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0:41

South Carolina advances to championship game for 3rd time in 7 years

South Carolina dominates the second half to advance to their third women’s final.

How South Carolina beat NC State 78-59

What was key in South Carolina’s win?

Two words: Kamilla Cardoso. South Carolina has been balanced all year, but Friday night the Gamecocks rode Cardoso to the championship game. Cardoso led all scorers with 22 points and chipped in 11 boards. It marked just the fifth time she has scored 20 points while at South Carolina. In addition to the individual scoring effort from Cardoso, the Gamecocks exploded for a 29-6 run over the third quarter to put NC State away. — Barnes

What surprised you the most about this game?

The victory margin was somewhat surprising, but the biggest takeaway was just how clinical South Carolina was in the third quarter. It was a lesson in shot selection (60% shooting), defensive execution (NC State made one field goal and had four turnovers) and rebounding (15-5 advantage). Giving up second-half leads has been the biggest issue for the Gamecocks late in the season. Tennessee, Indiana and Oregon State all made runs to make games tense late. The Gamecocks’ third quarter was so good, so dominant that there was no way NC State could come back. The thought around the Gamecocks has been that if they play their A-game, they won’t lose. That 10 minutes was South Carolina’s A-plus game. — Creme

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1:00

Heat check! Kamilla Cardoso knocks down 3 consecutive buckets

Kamilla Cardoso is on fire as she knocks down three consecutive buckets to pad the Gamecocks’ lead.

Who was the most outstanding player?

Twice, Cardoso had to leave the floor for the locker room. But when she was on the court, South Carolina’s All-American center dominated. In the first quarter, Cardoso had to exit because of an issue with her left eye. She returned from the locker room for the second quarter to score 12 straight points, as the Gamecocks asserted control following a shaky first quarter. With 1:39 left in the first half, Cardoso had to be subbed out again after injuring her right leg contesting a shot at the rim. Despite limping off to the locker room, she started the third quarter. Cardoso’s back-to-back layups early in the half helped ignite a 29-6 South Carolina run that put the game away. — Trotter

What will be the legacy of NC State?

This was the first Final Four appearance for NC State since 1998. The Wolfpack were just the seventh team to make a Final Four after being unranked in the AP preseason poll and the first since Washington in 2016. Though the outcome didn’t go NC State’s way, the Wolfpack got over the hump to the women’s basketball final weekend after losing in the Elite Eight and in first round in the prior two years. — Barnes

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