South Carolina vs. Iowa, Caitlin Clark a long time coming for women’s basketball

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The South Carolina women’s basketball team a year ago looked at the March Madness bracket and saw the two-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes in its region.

The Hawkeyes were led by Caitlin Clark — a budding star in the basketball world known for her long-range shots and ability to rack up triple-doubles. If everything went chalk, the Gamecocks would match up against Iowa in the 2022 Elite Eight. The Hawkeyes, though, were upset by Creighton in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.

Now, Friday’s Final Four game between South Carolina and Iowa (9 p.m., ESPN) is shaping up to be a showdown that was worth the wait.

“We wanted to see them last year, and we weren’t able to,” senior guard Zia Cooke said. “So I was telling my teammates, ‘It’s about time.’ It’s time for us to see them. And it’s gonna be one of the best games in history.”

Friday’s game at American Airlines Arena features two National Player of the Year winners: Clark and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston.

Clark was named 2022-23 player of the year this week by both the Naismith and The Associated Press. She’s averaging 27.3 points, 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game. She’s been called everything from “women’s basketball’s Steph Curry” to the “biggest brand in college sports.”

She creates her own offense with step-back jumpers and shots from the center-court logo, and she has the ability to get Iowa’s other shooters involved in the game.

“She does everything,” redshirt freshman Raven Johnson said. “I don’t think we can just dial in to her because they have other players that can shoot the ball, other players that can get the team rolling.”

Iowa and South Carolina fans frequently banter on social media to debate Clark vs. Boston. Members of both fan bases believe their star is the best player in the country — regardless of a team’s record or an individual’s statistics.

The two play different positions, with Boston operating in the post and Clark being a perimeter player. The discussions persist nonetheless.

Boston, who swept the Player of the Year awards last season and this week won a second-straight Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award, doesn’t want the focus to be solely on her vs. Clark, though she does see the benefit of the debate.

“It’s a team sport,” Boston said. “But it’s pretty cool to just be in that environment, be in that type of conversation because you know that there’s a lot of people excited for this, excited to see the games happen. It’s amazing.”

Clark has embraced the growing conversation that has emerged in the last two years.

She said she concurs with the long-standing sentiments of South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, an advocate for growing women’s basketball, about the need to have healthy debate about the elite figures in the sport.

“We need these discussions about player of the year or about which team is better,” Clark said. ”That’s gonna only move the game forward. So I think it’s incredible, and you couldn’t ask for a better stage for this game to take place on.”

For Staley, the conversations among fans are helpful — as long as they don’t border on disrespect.

“Any time you’re able to talk about our game and talk about two young women who have been storylines throughout the season, I think is great,” Staley said. “I just don’t like when people cross the line because our game is pure, it’s blossoming. But I guess it’s part of sports when people can take jabs at either young people.”

Plenty of headlines have been swirling since South Carolina’s Elite Eight win over Maryland made the Final Four matchup against Iowa official.

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (22) practices with her team at the American Airline Center before the NCAA Tournament Final Four game against South Carolina on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (22) practices with her team at the American Airline Center before the NCAA Tournament Final Four game against South Carolina on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

Everything from Clark and Boston’s first meeting, USC’s chance to defend against the National Player of the Year and Lisa Boulder’s comments about the “bar fight” she believes will take place on the boards has been discussed on social media.

But amid the media madness the game is creating, South Carolina intends to remain locked into its goal of winning a second-straight national championship.

USC is no stranger to big matchups, and it’s grown familiar with games against elite players. Clark will be the sixth AP All-American the team’s played this year, and the second first-team performer.

With two All-Americans of their own, the Gamecocks don’t want to make Friday’s game about one player.

“Whoever is guarding (Clark) will do their job,” Cooke said. “And I’m 100% confident in that. I’m calm, I’m poised right now and I’m ready.”

The South Carolina-Iowa Final Four meeting is a long time coming, even dating back beyond last year.

Cooke, Boston and Clark all played for the same U16 team in 2017. From what Boston and Cooke recall, Clark was always a knockdown shooter, but her range increased dramatically after high school.

Many will tune in on Friday to see the Iowa star’s shooting ability, and the Gamecocks will finally get the chance to face it.

“I always remember her being a very good shooter, but I think her game has developed tremendously since then,” Cooke said. “I’ve always had respect for a game, but right now, she’s one of the best college players to ever come out.”

Zia Cooke (left) and Caitlin Clark (right) in Buenos Aires, Argentina as U16 teammates in 2017.
Zia Cooke (left) and Caitlin Clark (right) in Buenos Aires, Argentina as U16 teammates in 2017.