DALLAS — When top-seeded South Carolina faces off against No. 2 Iowa in the national semifinals Friday night, the two most recent National Players of the Year will be on the floor.
Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark claimed the Naismith Trophy and the honor from the Associated Press this year after averaging 27.3 points, 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting 39.2 percent from 3-point land. Clark has guided Iowa (30-6) back to the Final Four for the first time since 1993.
Largely due to Clark’s production, Iowa leads the nation in scoring with 87.6 points per game.
On the other side is the nation’s toughest defense. Undefeated South Carolina (36-0) allows its opponents to shoot just 31.7 percent from the floor.
Anchoring the Gamecocks on both ends of the floor is forward Aliyah Boston, who was the consensus National Player of the Year a season ago. While Boston’s stats have taken a slight dip this season — she averages 13.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game — she was still a first-team All-American and the engine for a South Carolina team seeking its second straight championship.
“Everybody has been talking about this matchup for a really long time. It’s exciting that it’s happening in the Final Four,” Boston said. “I think it’s just a great game for women’s basketball. I know there’s going to be a lot of people in the crowd, a lot of people watching the game. Just super excited to be in that environment.”
Boston is widely projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft. While she has impressed with her consistent offensive play, her bruising defense and her rebounding dominance, Clark has electrified crowds with her high-scoring totals and triple-doubles.
Clark has had five triple-doubles this season, most recently against Louisville in the Elite Eight last weekend in Seattle. She dropped 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the Hawkeyes’ win over the Cardinals, the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA Tournament history — women’s or men’s.
“People compare Caitlin to Aliyah, and to me that’s apples to oranges,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “It makes no sense. They are completely different players. They are completely different positions. They’re both great at what they do, but what they do is different.”
While Clark patrols the perimeter for Iowa, the Hawkeyes are powered in the paint by Monika Czinano, who averages 17.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. And McKenna Warnock, Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin each make at least 1.2 3-pointers per game.
Clark likely will face multiple South Carolina defenders on Friday, but she’ll probably see Zia Cooke and Brea Beal in her face most of the time. Cooke leads South Carolina in scoring this season with 15.1 points per game, and Beal was a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year — an award that ultimately went to her teammate, Boston, for the second straight season.
“They all want a chance to guard her. It’s going to take all of them probably and more to guard Caitlin,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She is someone that is unpredictable, like she’ll be able to pivot and take and make incredible shots, both from outside — way outside the 3 — to at the rim.”
Iowa has never advanced to the championship game. South Carolina has twice — in 2017 and 2022 — and won the title both times.
–By Mitchell Northam, Field Level Media