March Madness: With star players and powerhouse programs, Final Four packs Texas-sized punch

DALLAS — The brightest stars in women’s basketball are on the biggest stage in Texas this weekend when the 2023 women’s Final Four tips off on Friday night. Three of four Naismith Award finalists will be playing, led by the long-awaited matchup between the newly named 2023 winner, Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark, and the 2022 winner, South Carolina center Aliyah Boston.

“America gets to see two fabulous, spectacular basketball players in the same 40 minutes,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said on Tuesday. “It doesn’t get a lot better than that.”

Clark earned the award over Boston, Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist and Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley on Wednesday during a packed ceremony at the Reunion Tower. It’s the second year the Atlanta Tip-off Club has hosted an event for the announcement and it received a record 750,000 fan votes. The fan vote accounts for 5% of the total and is combined with a voting panel.

The South Carolina players crammed into the back left side behind a full row of cameras and whooped for every mention of their honorees, which included Dawn Staley’s second consecutive Coach of the Year honor. The Iowa players stood feet from them on the right side, later claiming they were next in line to see Clark so they could pose for a team photo after her media circuit responsibilities.

The two stars and their teammates highlight what’s expected to be a record-setting Final Four weekend when No. 2 seed Iowa takes on No. 1 overall seed South Carolina at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. The early semifinal is between No. 3 seed LSU, led by Angel Reese, and No. 1 seed Virginia Tech (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The NCAA women's tournament features star power in, clockwise from top right, Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley, South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, Iowa's Caitlin Clark and LSU's Angel Reese. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
The NCAA women's tournament Final Four features star power in, clockwise from top left, Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley, South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, Iowa's Caitlin Clark and LSU's Angel Reese. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

Boston and her South Carolina squad remain the favorites to win a repeat championship, the first in the sport since Connecticut’s four straight that ended in 2016. That UConn team was also the most recent of nine perfect teams in women’s basketball history. But for the first time since 2007, the Huskies are not playing during the final weekend.

Instead, the Gamecocks are joined by three programs making triumphant returns — or an introduction in one case — to the semifinals in an age of parity and shifting power. None has won a national title or played in the national championship game.

“Years ago, it was always the same teams, and maybe there was one team that maybe surprised someone by being in the Final Four that wasn’t, like, the traditionally rich program,” Staley said. The Gamecocks are in their fifth Final Four, having won their first of two titles in Dallas in 2017. “The game has grown so much that really anybody, like any program, can make it to the Final Four because of the parity of our game.”

The transfer portal has opened the door for immediate success by programs needing one extra piece like LSU, which actually needed nine pieces in the offseason. There’s also a large benefit to keeping a group together to build chemistry, like the South Carolina senior class called the “freshies,” Iowa’s 90-game starting five and Virginia Tech’s growth of upperclassmen who took a “blind leap of faith” to join head coach Kenny Brooks.

Iowa made the Final Four only once in 1993, losing to Ohio State. The Hawkeyes broke the seal behind a massive 41-point triple-double from Clark and improved contributions from around the roster. The matchup with Boston was expected last March in the regional final, but Iowa was upset by Creighton in the second round. The comparison of the two is like apples and oranges to Bluder, but the duo have led the pack for two seasons in the National Player of the Year conversation.

“They both bring completely different skill sets and they’re both excellent at what they do,” Bluder said.

LSU is making its first Final Four appearance since its five straight ended in 2008. Though it’s new for the players and snapped a skid for the program, head coach Kim Mulkey won three titles at Baylor. She could become the first head coach to win championships at two different programs after assembling a group of transfers and freshmen led by double-double star Reese. Much like Staley, her courtside fashion fits will draw attention and have social media talking.

Virginia Tech, which faces LSU in the semifinals, is making its first appearance in the Final Four. The Hokies’ previous best tournament finish was reaching the Sweet 16 in 1999. They and South Carolina are the only No. 1 seeds to reach the final weekend after both Indiana and Stanford were bounced before the Sweet 16. Iowa is a 2-seed and LSU a 3-seed.

Still, the ACC tournament champions that have taken off with more from guard Georgia Amoore are often overlooked. Other than South Carolina, who has won 42 straight, the Hokies have the longest winning streak in the nation at 15 games (excluding teams not in the NCAA tournament).

“Fans get tired of — they get fatigued of the same teams all the time, but the interest will get drummed up if there’s a new kid on the block,” Brooks said. “And I think we’re the new kid on the block right now, relatively speaking because of history, and people will tune in and be excited. Maybe they’ll get behind us because sometimes I think people forget that we were the 1 seed. So these aren’t upsets. We’re not surprised to be here.”

The upsets came earlier in the tournament, paving a path to Dallas lined with stars fitting for the title game to air on ABC for the first time in history (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET). It’s on pace for record TV viewership given the names involved and the 73% increase in viewership year-over-year during the Sweet 16.

South Carolina and Iowa lead the nation in attendance and had strong fan showings at the regional sites. The Gamecocks played in their home state 90 minutes from campus, whereas Iowa played nearly 2,000 miles away in Seattle. Fans for each team were already spotted in Dallas on Tuesday.

It is the first Final Four in 38 years — and all but four tournaments — without UConn, Stanford or Tennessee. Yet, excitement couldn’t be higher for the new wave of women’s basketball powers and individual stars. When Monday morning rolls around, there will either be a clear powerhouse in South Carolina or a first-time champion. A Naismith Award winner adding a second trophy or one fulfilling the words she told the head coach recruiting her. A head coach creating her own blueprint of rebuilding another program and doing it with new additions, or one who transformed a culture to become a cohesive unit and set new standards for the program.

All are exciting. And it comes at a time when the game has never been more popular or involved in the culture, with the NCAA media rights deal coming up amid a push to pull the women’s game out of the package it’s in with everything except football and men’s basketball.

“I think it’s tremendous for women’s basketball,” Brooks said. “The teams that will be represented, the storylines that will be represented, and if you just really dive into it, you’re going to really enjoy what’s going on.”