Women’s Final Four: The key players, storylines to watch and what’s being said in Cleveland

Women’s Final Four: The key players, storylines to watch and what’s being said in Cleveland

The Women’s Final Four will take place Friday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland, Ohio.

Top overall seed South Carolina will face No. 3 seed NC State in the first semifinal game, which tips at 7 p.m. ET. No. 1 Iowa vs. No. 3 UConn will follow at 9 p.m. ET

In a season that has seen extreme media attention and increased viewership numbers, this Women’s Final Four matchup is looking to be another evening of thrilling games we have seen so far in the women’s NCAA tournament.

Below we breakdown the storylines to follow, players to know and everything important said at media day on Thursday.

Caitlin Clark vs Paige Bueckers

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said to the media on Thursday that she doesn’t want her team’s semifinal matchup vs. UConn on Friday night to be promoted as “Paige vs. Caitlin.” But with many new fans invested and national interested in women’s college basketball, the superstar talent of both these guards is undeniably great television.

“Obviously we have one of the best players in the country on our team, and we’re thrilled to have that. But I do not want this to be a game that’s promoted as Caitlin versus Paige. And I know it already has been,” she said. “But I don’t want that. I want it to be Iowa versus UConn and let these two women do what they do best.”

Clark and Bueckers are very familiar with each other. Two very talented hoopers when they were young, both from the Midwest and are used to playing with the spotlight on them.

“We had a lot of battles in AAU together and with team USA. She is just a competitor, she wants to win, she has the tangibles of the game. She knows how to play, a great IQ,” Bueckers said. “The greatest thing about her is that she competes. She wants to win at all costs. So I know going in that it will be a great matchup.”

Iowa’s fifth year senior Gabbie Marshall, a Cincinnati Ohio native, spoke about the challenge she will face on Friday having to play against Bueckers. Marshall said one of her main focuses for the upcoming game will be guarding Bueckers, trying to limit her shots and touches and make things more difficult for her.

“She’s just smooth,” Marshall said of Bueckers. “If the defense takes one thing away they always have a counter for it. She is a really, really good player. I think there are some similarities with Caitlin, but I am ready for that challenge.”

Marshall said that many friends and family will be in attendance with her playing in her home state. Marshall added that she enjoys defense even more now in college compared to her playing days in high school. She credits her strong defensive play for helping her get minutes on the court.

“Truthfully, I think defense is all just heart, energy and effort. Those are things you can control. You don’t have to be a super talented person to play defense. It’s really all effort and that’s something my team can rely on me to give and bring every single night. I pride myself on my defense,” Marshall said.

The Undefeated vs The Underdogs

Being the underdogs is nothing new to this NC State squad as they beat higher-seeded teams Stanford and Texas to make it to Cleveland. The No. 3 seeded Wolfpack spoke on Thursday about how that mentality has helped them with this incredible March Madness run.

“Like Coach Moore (has) said, it’s good to be a party crasher and upset teams,” said junior guard Aziaha James. “I feel it gives us more confidence, you know, that people look down on us and we can change something.”

“We’ve been the underdogs all season, since the season started.” fellow guard Saniya Rivers added. “It gives us confidence, but I also feel like it gives us so much motivation, just motivation that we have something to prove. We played all season with a chip on our shoulders. And it’s the same thing now. We’re the underdogs. Like Coach said we’re the party crashers, and we’re coming to crash the party.”

The team will certainly be considered an underdog again on Friday, as South Carolina is a 11.5 point favorite according to DraftKings. However, the play of Rivers and James has been key to the team’s success as both players scoring machines in the NCAA tournament so far. Rivers will also be playing her formal team, as she was on South Carolina’s team during the 2021-22 season.

“There’s no beef, I told Coach Staley that I was going to see her again when I left & here we are”

Saniya Rivers told me that she still has great relationships with Dawn Staley and her former teammates & she is excited to face the Gamecocks in the Final Four@WLTX | #Gamecocks pic.twitter.com/sJ8sKs2CFw

— Chandler Mack (@chandlerdmack) April 4, 2024

From the vibes when talking to media on Thursday you can tell the Wolfpack team is simply having fun. Their head coach Wes Moore, now in his 11th season with NC State, spoke about how the team enjoyed singing songs when visiting the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on Wednesday. But Moore knows that it will not be an easy test on Friday.

“We’ve got to take away the easy points for them. They’re so good, you don’t need to help them any,” Moore said. “So transition D, you’ve got to find a way to get back. And they can run. And make them, take away layups. Offensive boards. You’ve got to find them. And they’re a great offensive rebounding team….and we need to shoot well. We need to hit some threes, loosen that defense up a little and widen the defense out.”

Final Four program histories

NC State was last in the Final Four back in 1998 under legendary coach Kay Yow. This will be its first trip under head coach Wes Moore who joined in 2013. The Wolfpack made the Elite Eight back in 2022, but fell to UConn in a heartbreaking double overtime loss.

With Clark leading the Hawkeyes, this will mark the second-straight Final Four appearance for Iowa. Last year they fell to LSU in the national championship game, 102-85.

“We don’t need to be who we were last year,” Clark said to media on Thursday. “That is not going to help us be successful. This is a whole new team. And this is a whole different dynamic. Let’s make this our own and that is exactly what we did. And that’s what we have done to bring us back to this point.”

South Carolina, who fell to Iowa in the semifinals in 2023, is playing in their 12th straight NCAA tournament under head coach Dawn Staley. The Gamecocks enter the season undefeated at 36-0.

UConn, another women’s basketball program known for historic success, didn’t imagine the team would make it to Cleveland this year with the amount of injuries they are sustained.

Head coach Geno Auriemma joked on Thursday that he had a lot of plans for this weekend — that didn’t include being in Cleveland.

“If you would have talked to me in June this year, I would tell you, ‘yeah, it was going to be us and South Carolina playing for the national championship.’ Then as things started to happen, I started to believe something different. You have to be realistic, and we live in a world at UConn where the expectations are unrealistic. But you have to be realistic.” Auriemma said. “You have to look at your team, and you have to say, do we have an answer for everything that happens? And if the answer’s no, then you just have to cross your fingers and hope that thing doesn’t happen, or those two things that you know you have no answer for. So there’s a lot of things we don’t have an answer for in tomorrow’s game.”

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