Final Four preview and predictions: Iowa vs. UConn, South Carolina vs. NC State


The women’s NCAA Tournament has been filled with excitement and intrigue. The LSU-Iowa showdown in the Elite Eight had all the embellishments of a national championship classic. Star players, storylines, stuffed stat boxes — what more could we want? Well, luckily, we’re not done yet.

The Final Four features two No. 1 seeds, the blueblood of women’s basketball and an underdog. Cleveland will showcase Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, undefeated South Carolina and the don’t-count-us-out Wolfpack. Let the countdown begin.

What should you know? Who’s going to win? Here are our breakdowns and predictions.

7 p.m. (ET) Friday ESPN

Aziaha James joked Sunday in Portland that nobody knew her name when she came to NC State from Virginia Beach, Va., as a true freshman two years ago. “But you know my name now,” she playfully said to reporters. “So you’ve seen how I’ve grown.”

NC State was picked to finish eighth in the ACC this season. None of its players was named to the preseason All-ACC team.

James now has led them to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. She saved her very best basketball for last and has been a bona fide superstar for the Wolfpack this tournament, scoring at least 22 points in each of her last three games. She dropped 29 and a logo 3 when NC State upset No. 2 seed Stanford in the Sweet 16, then casually poured in 27 more points on Sunday against No. 1 Texas. She looks confident, loose and downright unguardable at the moment.

But South Carolina has some big-time guards of its own, in addition to one of the most dominant post players in the game in 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso.

Aside from Caitlin Clark, Te-Hina Paopao might be the most dangerous 3-point shooter in Cleveland. She’s hitting 46.3 percent of long-range attempts, good for second in the country. The Gamecocks are so deep that freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, their second-leading scorer, isn’t even a starter.

If we assume both teams’ guards will have their moments, it seems like this game will come down to who’s better down low. NC State forward River Baldwin likely will be in charge of Cardoso. She and the Wolfpack already matched up well against Stanford’s Cameron Brink in the Sweet 16, but Cardoso could be an even more imposing challenge.

South Carolina’s bench will also be a major challenge from the Wolfpack. The Gamecocks are built for March, averaging nearly 34 points per game from their reserves.

The pick: South Carolina

No. 3 Connecticut vs. No. 1 Iowa

9 p.m. (ET) Friday ESPN

Caitlin Clark’s first NCAA Tournament run ended with a loss to Paige Bueckers and UConn in the Sweet 16. It’s only fitting that her college career includes a rematch against her fellow former 2020 recruit. They were former Team USA teammates and each has won the national player of the year award (Bueckers as a freshman, Clark as a junior). And both are chasing a national championship.

It’s hard to think of the Huskies versus the Hawkeyes without starting with Bueckers versus Clark considering their individual dominance and the way their careers have intertwined. Colorado and LSU had no answers for Clark, who tallied 70 points and 27 assists over two regional wins. However, the Huskies have bigger perimeter defenders, starting with Nika Mühl, who took on the challenge of defending JuJu Watkins; Bueckers can also take that matchup if necessary. The problem with UConn’s defense is that it focuses on protecting the paint, and the Huskies give up a high volume of 3-pointers. That is untenable against Iowa, and not just because of Clark. Every rotation player other than Kylie Feuerbach shoots at least 36 percent from 3-point range, and they get them up.

After seeing Clark’s stat line against the Tigers, Geno Auriemma joked: “I hope Caitlin Clark had a personal agenda against LSU. I know there’s nothing personal between me and her. I don’t need to be seeing her drop 50 on us next weekend, you know?”

Assuming Clark will get hers, the onus is on Bueckers to match her production. The UConn senior has never been as prolific a shot-hunter as Clark, but she has averaged nearly 28 points since the start of the conference tournament. Bueckers rises to the occasion in March, and her teammates have done enough to complement her for the Huskies to advance this far. Aaliyah Edwards will be a load for Hannah Stuelke. The rest of UConn’s rotation will have to make quick decisions with the ball; either shoot on the catch or get off of it so that Bueckers and Edwards can continue to bend the defense.

Iowa and UConn both rated as top-five offenses during the regular season, per Her Hoop Stats, so this should be a fun one. The Huskies have a better defense on paper, but there is no challenge quite like defending Clark. The way she is rolling, it’s hard to bet against her putting together a storybook finish to her collegiate career.

The pick: Iowa

(Photos of Aziaha James and Kamilla Cardoso: Steph Chambers / Getty Images,  Eakin Howard / Getty Images)

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