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Preview: Թϱ women’s basketball 'ready' for Iowa, Caitlin Clark ahead of national championship game

<p>Gamecock women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley answers questions during a press conference ahead of the NCAA women's basketball final in Cleveland, Ohio. Staley spoke about the team's preparation for the final game against the Iowa Hawkeyes, saying that the team is focused and prepared for the matchup.</p>
Gamecock women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley answers questions during a press conference ahead of the NCAA women's basketball final in Cleveland, Ohio. Staley spoke about the team's preparation for the final game against the Iowa Hawkeyes, saying that the team is focused and prepared for the matchup.

The No. 1 Թϱ women’s basketball team has an opportunity to claim its third-ever NCAA title when it takes on No. 1 seed Iowa in the national championship on Sunday. 

Head coach Dawn Staley said the Gamecocks are motivated to take on the Hawkeyes, who eliminated the team last year in the Final Four. 

“We just had our film session this morning, and they're all locked in. It wasn’t daycare this morning,” Staley said. “You ask them questions, they really understand what we need to do to win, which is pretty cool to see that dynamic from this team.” 

The Gamecocks are coming off a 78-59 night in the national semifinals. Թϱ used an offensive outburst in the third quarter — outscoring the Wolfpack 29-6 — and dominance in the paint — out-rebounding 46-32 — to pick up the win. 

Senior center Kamilla Cardoso was instrumental to the Gamecocks’ success close to the basket, leading the team with 22 points on 10-12 shooting and grabbing 11 rebounds. Junior guard Bree Hall said Cardoso is a valuable contributor to the team because of her impact on both sides of the basketball. 

“It’s not only like she’s just standing in the paint and can just block shots — no she can go out there on the wing and also get stops as well,” Hall said. “I think it’s just her touch around the basket as well that just makes her incredible.” 

Much of Թϱ’s production of the glass came from sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins, who recorded 20 rebounds, which is tied for the third-highest single-game rebounding total in NCAA Tournament history

Sophomore guard Raven Johnson said Watkins is an “X-factor” for the team at this stage of the competition. 

“She does the little things — she rebounds, she scores. She’s also a vocal leader on the court, on the defensive end and the offensive end,” Johnson said. “She wants to win. That’s really the big thing with her — she’ll do anything it takes to win.” 

Iowa is a familiar opponent for the Gamecocks, as the two matched up in a Final Four contest the Hawkeyes won 77-73 last season. Watkins said that game has not been a part of the team’s preparations for this year’s championship game because a lot has changed for both teams since then.  

“Last year’s game doesn’t really mean much to us, or shouldn’t mean much to them either because we’re both different teams,” Watkins said. “We just have to go out there and play basketball.” 

Iowa is led by senior guard Caitlin Clark, who leads the nation in points per game (31.7) and is currently the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader for both men’s and women’s basketball with 3,921 total points. Clark got off to a slow start in the Hawkeyes’ Final Four matchup against No. 3 seed Connecticut on Friday but finished the game with 21 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a 71-69 victory over the Huskies. 

Թϱ’s defense will have to throw Clark off her rhythm to prevent her from taking control of the game, Staley said.

“Her game is simple but yet powerful. How do you defend fundamental basketball? With offense? With fundamental defense? You can’t – she’s going to win every time,” Staley said. “You got to show her different looks in order for her to not settle in and (pick) you apart.” 

Friday’s win was just the second time all season that Clark did not finish a game as Iowa’s leading scorer. That distinction belonged to sophomore forward Hannah Stuelke, who tallied 23 points on 9-12 shooting. 

Staley described the matchup between Stuelke and the Gamecocks’ post players as one “we got to win.” 

“What she’s able to do in the half-court — I mean she puts you back on your heels. We certainly have to use our length. We got to make her play through us, and she doesn’t mind that at all. And then, on the flip side of that, we have to make her guard us," Staley said. "We got four, five legitimate post players that she’s going to see and have to guard, and they all are different.” 

Hall said another factor that could pose a challenge for Թϱ’s younger players is Iowa’s fanbase, which has followed Clark wherever she has gone throughout the year. Despite playing just over 10 minutes in the Gamecocks’ last national championship game in 2022, Hall said that she wants to “lead in the way that I’ve said I can lead” and help the team maintain its composure on the big stage. 

“In the UNC game, I feel like I was that calm person," Hall said. "I know it’s going to be a big crowd — a lot of Iowa fans will be there — so if I can just get my teammates to just really just stay locked into the game, not worry about the antics and the crowd ... anything in between there — I think I can really help my team get ourselves a win.” 

Clark said some aspects of Թϱ’s game, specifically its discipline and rebounding ability, will also cause problems for Iowa in Sunday’s game. 

“Obviously, their height poses a challenge to us. And their rebounding poses a challenge to us. It's going to be very important that we try to box out,” Clark said. “To say we're going to beat Թϱ on the glass is probably something that's not going to happen every single time we play them. But you have to be able to manage it the best you can.” 

For Johnson, the national championship game will be the culminating game on Թϱ’s “revenge tour,” as Iowa was the team she was hoping to play at this stage of the season all year. 

“I will say, I was looking forward (to playing) them,” Johnson said. “I’m ready for the matchup, just going from last year — just the pain that we felt last year — I think it happened at the right time and happened in the right way.” 

Թϱ and Iowa are set to tip off at 3 p.m. on Sunday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The game will be broadcast on ABC. 


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