As the NCAA Tournament shifts to Dallas for the Final Four — and a star-studded matchup against Iowa and Caitlin Clark awaits — let’s take a look at how South Carolina’s so-far perfect season could continue, and what stands in the way of the Gamecocks’ quest to become repeat national champions.
Why they’ll win
Defense wins championships. It’s an old adage, but it’s no less true, and an overwhelming, lockdown defense has been coach Dawn Staley’s calling card since the Gamecocks turned the corner and started adding to their trophy case. Through the tournament, South Carolina boasts the third-ranked scoring defense — yielding just 51.1 points per game, while ranking second with an average 31.1% opponent shooting percentage — and has the best scoring margin at 29.5 points; USC is also the nation’s best shot-blocking team with 8.9 per game. The Gamecocks clean the glass, too, ranking third in the country with 31.3 defensive rebounds per contest. This is a team that is demonstrably difficult to score on, and opportunities for second-chance points are scarce as well.
Size matters. I’m not breaking any new ground by saying this, but typically, tall people have something of an advantage in the sport of basketball. The Gamecocks are the biggest team left in the tournament, led by 6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston and 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso, and they leveraged it to great effect against an undersized Maryland team in the previous round. South Carolina knows how to use its height and length to its advantage, so opponents will have to deal with that in addition to the sheer amount of talent on USC’s roster.
Experience does, too. There’s a reason exasperated fans will beg their team to act like they’ve been there before when players are struggling on a big stage: The bright lights and intense pressure of a playoff or championship game can cause otherwise talented and competent teams to wilt when it matters most. As defending champions and NCAA Tournament regulars, this group of Gamecocks has quite literally seen it all — both heartbreak and triumph. The mental edge that a battle-tested squad can have when faced with a make-or-break scenario is no small thing.
Why they won’t
Shooting performance. As lights out as they are defensively, the Gamecocks don’t quite match that energy on the offensive end. Through this week, USC is just outside of the top 10 nationally with a 46.4% field goal percentage, but things have been uneven in postseason play — the Gamecocks put up a 38% performance against UCLA in the Sweet 16, and made just 16 of their 26 free throws against Maryland in what was a fairly maddening showing at the line. On the bright side, South Carolina is second nationally in offensive rebounds (18.1 per game) and tops in bench points per game (36). Those factors, combined with the defense, have helped the Gamecocks weather some off shooting nights. But here comes another obstacle...
Caitlin Clark. In case you’ve managed to avoid hearing about her (I hope the rock was comfortable), Clark is Iowa’s all-everything superstar coming off a 41-point performance and the first-ever triple-double in either the men’s or women’s NCAA Tournaments. She’s been the single biggest threat to Boston’s Player of the Year candidacy for a couple seasons now, and is the most hyped WNBA prospect this side of UConn’s Paige Bueckers. There’s hardly an offensive statistic that doesn’t place her in the top three nationally: 3-pointers per game (3.53), points per game (25.3), assists per game (8.6), free throw makes (229)...you get the picture. The Gamecocks’ Final Four matchup with Iowa is so scintillating for this reason: South Carolina hasn’t seen such a creative and prolific scorer, but Clark also hasn’t seen such a suffocating and stifling defense.
The red-hot Hokies. If there’s a team equivalent of how sizzlingly special Clark has been as a player, it’s Virginia Tech, which hasn’t lost a game since January and tore through the ACC Tournament before marching right through madness as well. The top-seeded Hokies didn’t have a favorable side of the bracket, either: VT had to knock off fourth-seeded Tennessee, which is starting to play a little more like their glory days of old, and No. 3 Ohio State (although the Buckeyes did take care of 2-seed UConn for them in a Sweet 16 upset). There’s something to be said for March magic, as some teams really blossom in the tournament format and take the world by storm. Of the squads remaining, Virginia Tech is the closest to fitting in that lightning-in-a-bottle, once-in-a-lifetime, “team of destiny” mold.