Final Four Is New Ground for South Carolina’s Challengers

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Aliyah Boston carefully cut off a piece of the net on Monday night after South Carolina had beaten Maryland to advance to the women’s Final Four. As she made the snip, she asked a South Carolina staffer if she was doing it correctly this time.

After three Southeastern Conference tournament championships, three Final Fours and a national title, Boston, South Carolina’s star forward, is a regular when it comes to cutting down nets. Still, she has always wanted a piece that she could wear like a bracelet. Somehow, she had never gotten the cut she desired, until Monday night.

“It’s so embarrassing because how do I not have it down by now?” Boston said. “Listen, I’m a terrible net-cutter, believe it or not. I somehow cut the strings. I’m not a string girl. I like the bracelet because it’s cool. So I figured out the secret.”

Worrying about net-cutting technique is a luxury that Boston and South Carolina can afford. The Gamecocks have become a college basketball juggernaut, and with a spot in the Final Four on the line, Boston had one of her best games of the season: 22 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in an 86-75 victory.

South Carolina is used to seeing its sport’s other two titans, Stanford and Connecticut, at the Final Four. But those teams are out, and instead the Gamecocks will be joined in Dallas by some less-storied programs: Virginia Tech, Iowa and Louisiana State.

Virginia Tech is in the Final Four for the first time. Iowa last went in 1993. L.S.U. had a five-year run reaching the national semifinals that ended in 2008. And none of the three challengers to South Carolina’s bid for a repeat title has reached a championship game.

South Carolina will immediately have its hands full on Friday against Iowa and the sharpshooting guard Caitlin Clark.

Hawkeyes Coach Lisa Bluder remembers sitting in Clark’s living room years ago on a recruiting trip, when Clark told her that she dreamed of competing in a Final Four. Since Clark arrived at Iowa in 2020, she has been public about that aspiration, telling anyone who will ask her about it, which Bluder encouraged Clark “to quit doing.”

“I learned a long time ago not to always give your goals away to people,” Bluder said. “Because there’s a lot of people that want to tear them down. She wasn’t afraid of that goal. She wasn’t afraid of putting it out there.”

On Sunday night, in the biggest game of her Iowa career, Clark had arguably her best performance: 41 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds and 3 steals in a 97-83 win over Louisville.

“Against the best opponents in the country, that’s when she’s at her very best,” Bluder said in a recent interview.

As Clark hit basket after basket, some defenders threw their arms in the air in frustration, and Clark often waved her hands to the Iowa fans who had made the journey to Seattle. They followed her lead and roared with every summoning like a band following a conductor.

It was the first 40-point triple-double a tournament game — men’s or women’s — and it burnished Clark’s claim as college basketball’s most electrifying star.

While Iowa and Louisville had a track meet of a game filled with 3-pointers and elite shotmaking, L.S.U. moved past Miami in a game that Tigers Coach Kim Mulkey said she would have turned off if she were watching at home.

Struggling is, perhaps, an understatement to describe both offenses. It wasn’t until early in the fourth quarter that L.S.U. guard Kateri Poole made the game’s first and only 3-pointer. (In Seattle, Clark had eight by herself, and Iowa and Louisville combined for 24.)

The L.S.U. star forward Angel Reese made just three baskets from the field, the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year Flau’jae Johnson missed open shots, and the Tigers had their worst offensive game of the season.

L.S.U.’s 54 points and its 30.1 percent shooting were both season lows. One bright spot was point guard Alexis Morris, who kept the Tigers in the game with a team-high 21 points. The other was the Tigers’ defense, which forced Miami to shoot even worse than they did.

No matter, the Tigers danced and danced at halfcourt as confetti fell and players cut down the net. Reese wrote on Twitter: “A WIN IS A WIN!!” By the time the festivities were wrapping up, Mulkey was walking around the arena barefoot.

Mulkey, who took over a nine-win L.S.U. team two seasons ago after winning three championships at Baylor, has tried to temper expectations throughout this tournament. She has told reporters that L.S.U. is ahead of schedule after having added nine new players to begin the season. What teams, she has asked, have been this good two years into a coach’s tenure?

After clinching a place in the Final Four, Mulkey reflected on her career and the sentiment of leading her home state’s flagship university this far.

“I just wanted to come back to the state of Louisiana and come home,” Mulkey, 60, said. She added: “But what really makes me smile is not cutting that net down; it’s looking around out there at all those L.S.U. people, looking at that team I get to coach, experience it for the first time.”

L.S.U.’s Final Four opponent will be Virginia Tech, which despite holding a No. 1 seed had been a bit overlooked in the Seattle 2 Region because of UConn’s presence as the No. 2 seed. UConn had been to 14 straight Final Fours and didn’t seem to be slowing down ahead of the tournament. Yet the Huskies were upset in the round of 16 by Ohio State.

“We were the 1 seed. OK? We were the 1 seed. And for people to be like, ‘Wow, you guys are here,’ it’s almost like, ‘Yeah, we’re supposed to be here,’” Virginia Tech Coach Kenny Brooks said.

He added: “It doesn’t matter if it was UConn in front of us, Ohio State or the Lakers. We’re going to come, and we’re going to lock in.”

And they did.

Virginia Tech comfortably pulled away from Ohio State on Monday to win, 84-74. The Hokies were buoyed by their two stars, guard Georgia Amoore and center Elizabeth Kitley, who combined for 49 points. Virginia Tech looked to be in trouble in the second quarter, however, when Amoore went down with an injury and left the floor briefly.

“She just caught me in the chin, but it was a little hit,” Amoore said in an ESPN interview. “We had a game to win.”

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