Why Iowa is the favorite to win the women’s NCAA title

Why Iowa is the favorite to win the women’s NCAA title

DALLAS — The 2023 women’s NCAA basketball tournament has been full of upsets since the second round, and Sunday’s national championship matchup (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) reflects it: It’s the third NCAA title game (and first since 2011) played without a No. 1 seed, as the 2-seed Iowa Hawkeyes will take on the No. 3 seed LSU Tigers for the ultimate crown. To get to this point, the Hawkeyes upset the defending national champion and then-undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks in the national semifinal, while the Tigers knocked off the Virginia Tech Hokies, the other remaining 1-seed in the women’s Final Four.

Iowa and LSU have plenty of star power: the Hawkeyes with guard Caitlin Clark and the Tigers with forward Angel Reese. But both teams are new to this stage. Iowa is playing in its first Final Four since 1993, while LSU is in its first since 2008. And both are in the title game for the first time — LSU went 0-5 in the Final Four from 2004 to 2008. It’s just the third time this century that the national championship game participants are making their debut appearances in the final.

Following three national championships at Baylor, LSU coach Kim Mulkey is just the fourth head coach to take a team to the national title game within their first two seasons of taking over a program, and only Purdue‘s Carolyn Peck in 1999 got her squad across the finish line. That is also the only Big Ten program to win it all; prior to this weekend, a Big Ten team hadn’t advanced this far since 2005 when Michigan State reached the final.

Clark (161 points) needs just 17 points to break Sheryl Swoopes’ record for most points in a single NCAA tournament (177 in 1993 with Texas Tech). She has been held to fewer than 17 points just once this season, in mid-February versus Rutgers.

ESPN’s M.A. Voepel, Charlie Creme, Andrea Adelson and Alexa Philippou break down the highly anticipated matchup and share their predictions for which team will cut down the nets at the American Airlines Center.

No one has slowed Caitlin Clark. How will LSU defend her?



Caitlin Clark hypes up Iowa crowd after upset win

Caitlin Clark is speechless when looking back at her performance after Iowa’s stunning win.

Adelson: There was one message LSU delivered when asked this very question on Saturday. They all acknowledge that Clark will get her points. The key is to not let her teammates have big nights, too. Coach Kim Mulkey said, “One minute you think you’re going to guard her a certain way, then you watch the film and change your mind and go, ‘Oh, that’s not going to work,'” Mulkey said.

Freshman Flau’jae Johnson is expecting to take some responsibility for the defensive assignment, but guard Alexis Morris said everyone on the floor is going to have to contribute. “Do you really have a game plan for Caitlin?” Morris said. “You just have to contain her, try to make every shot contested. You don’t want to give her those easy looks. She’s a three-level scorer. It’s going to be hard to stop her. The best thing we can do is contain her. Our game plan is to not let the second and third and fourth and fifth players have an all-world night because that’s when we’re really going to be in trouble.”

Creme: As Mulkey and Johnson said, there is no real answer to Clark when she’s playing like this. Even Clark acknowledged she is in a zone right now. While she has been especially good in the NCAA tournament, she’s been in a zone most of the season.

One way LSU can approach Clark is to attempt to take away one of her high-level skills and live with her exceeding at another one. Do the Tigers crowd Clark with multiple defenders constantly and make her a passer? Or single cover Clark off the ball screen and make sure she can’t get the ball to her teammates? Neither is ideal, but nothing is with defending Clark. Mulkey and associate head coach Bob Starkey are among the best at devising the right strategy. The question remains if there truly is one for a player of Clark’s caliber the way she is playing now.

Philippou: After being courtside as Clark scored 113 points and dished 28 assists over the past three games, all against defensive-minded teams, it’s difficult to envision Clark being truly contained at this point. And somehow on the biggest of stages, she only seems to play better, meaning Sunday could be no different. One thing that has gone a bit under the radar is that Clark has combined for 17 turnovers over the past two games. Neither Louisville nor South Carolina were ultimately able to make the Hawkeyes truly pay for it, but can the Tigers?

Voepel: At this point, we know everything that hasn’t worked. Blanketing Clark with defenders might be the best option. Try to frustrate her in as many ways as possible as a scorer, and hope she doesn’t end up with high double-digit assists.

Iowa has a big defensive challenge, too. How must the Hawkeyes match up with Angel Reese?



Mulkey says LSU’s sense of urgency was key vs. Hokies

Kim Mulkey says the Tigers’ tactic with time was crucial to their comeback vs. Virginia Tech, 79-72, then discusses the emotions of being on the national stage.

Philippou: One of the things (Iowa coach Lisa) Bluder highlighted specifically about Reese’s game was her dominance on the offense glass (where she averages 6.5 boards per game), as well as her agility and ability to handle the ball. What’s interesting about Iowa’s game against South Carolina was that the Hawkeyes gave up 26 offensive rebounds but finished with just 24 second-chance points. Meanwhile, what helped get Reese going in the second half of her game was that she upped her effort on the glass as the game proceeded (she had two rebounds at the half and 10 afterward), and the Tigers as a whole had 14 second-half, second-chance points. While Iowa packed the paint and dared South Carolina to shoot from the perimeter, Bluder might not love that plan if she’s saying LSU is a better shooting team. If so, that could help Reese have more room to operate inside, but either way, the Hawkeyes will need to box her out, what will likely be a group effort involving multiple players.

Adelson: Bluder also noted that Reese seems to be playing more free at LSU, compared to the last time they saw her at Maryland last year. That is something Reese has talked about at length — having the ability to be herself and use her versatility to help her team without being boxed into one role. Just when you think you have slowed Reese down, she finds a way to make plays, so there can’t be any complacency in the way Iowa guards her. Even against Miami in the Elite Eight, when she wasn’t having a great shooting night, she had 18 rebounds and got to the free throw line 10 times.

Voepel: Reese has a smooth mobility and leaping ability that is different than what the Hawkeyes faced against South Carolina. She can be as the compliment goes, “slippery” in the paint. She can soar above anyone on either team, which could put Iowa’s post players like Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock in foul trouble trying to guard her.

Other than Clark and Reese, who are the other most important players on the court and why?



Caitlin Clark sets semifinal record with 41-point performance in Iowa’s win

Caitlin Clark scores an NCAA semifinal-record 41 points in Iowa’s stunning upset of South Carolina.

Philippou: Clark won’t be the only star in the backcourt. Fifth-year senior guard Alexis Morris hit so many big shots for LSU in the semifinal, including scoring half of the Tigers’ 16 first-quarter points when offense was otherwise a bit tougher to come by. After Mulkey challenged her team going into the fourth quarter to approach the game like there was only two minutes left, Morris took the message to heart, scoring the first five points of the fourth to help pull LSU within four and get rolling the rest of the way.

Bluder said Saturday, “I feel like, again, we’re playing South Carolina, almost with a little bit better shooters.” Morris (along with Kateri Poole) can fit that mold as not always the most efficient 3-point shooter, but a clutch one. Plus, wouldn’t it be fitting that after her winding journey in college, and with Mulkey, that Morris helps her coach make history with LSU’s first title in the grandest of ways?

Adelson: If Iowa wants to try and replicate its effort inside the paint against LSU, nobody is more important than Czinano, who gave an incredible effort — even while she was outsized by South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso. While Cardoso was able to score, Czinano was a huge key in limiting Aliyah Boston to just eight points. Czinano finished with 18 points, three rebounds and three steals. Iowa still got outrebounded, but Clark pointed to the resiliency her teammates showed inside. “We never got discouraged, and I think that speaks to who this team is,” Clark said. “I know Mon had a few just go right over her head. She tried her best to box out. ‘Mon, it’s OK. You’ve got to keep your head up. We’ve got this.’ I think it’s just confidence and resiliency.”

Creme: LaDazhia Williams gave LSU a third scorer against Virginia Tech and that was key. South Carolina didn’t find a third until late in the game when Raven Johnson made a few shots. Williams was there from the early going with eight of her 16 points in the first half. Williams, at 6-foot-4, gives the Tigers some additional size. South Carolina couldn’t turn its size advantage over Iowa into a win, but the Gamecocks held a sizable 49-25 rebounding edge. If LSU, with Williams helping Reese inside, can replicate that dominance and get the improved shooting that Alexa pointed out Morris, and perhaps Poole, can provide, the Tigers will be in good position to win the championship for the first time.

Voepel: All of the above are accurate. Will also add in Iowa guard Kate Martin, known as the Hawkeyes’ “glue player.” At 6-0, she is big enough to help guard post players, and she can hit big shots as well.

Who wins, LSU or Iowa?



What makes Caitlin Clark special?

Doris Burke and Diana Taurasi analyze Caitlin Clark’s greatness during her performance against South Carolina.

Adelson: Iowa. It is really hard to pick against the Hawkeyes right now. Clark is electric and as strange as this sounds, she seems to have hit an even higher level over her last two games. Back-to-back 41-point performances with the spotlight on her — and against the best defensive team in the nation in South Carolina — how do you pick against that?

Creme: Iowa. As Alexa and Andrea have pointed out, Bluder likened LSU’s style of play to South Carolina’s. The same strategy Iowa used on Friday should be effective again. Sure, LSU’s coaching staff will make some adjustments based on what it saw in Iowa’s win over South Carolina, but the Tigers can’t change who they are in 36 hours. Clark has proven with her on the floor anything is possible for this group of Hawkeyes, and this story ends with them cutting down the nets.

Philippou: Iowa. I was impressed with how LSU took control of the game in the fourth quarter of the national semifinal to erase a double-figure deficit and beat Virginia Tech, and with a coach as experienced as Mulkey on the sidelines, it would be foolish to count out the Tigers. But national championships are quite often won by which team has the most transcendent player on the floor, and no one has fit that description more this tournament than Clark. It might simply be her time, her year.

Voepel: Iowa. It’s interesting that Clark didn’t play into the worn-out “nobody believed in us” narrative so overused in sports after the Hawkeyes beat South Carolina. Instead, she was imminently reasonable, saying with the Gamecocks being the overall No. 1 seed and on a 42-game winning streak, why wouldn’t someone pick them? That’s the sports fan in Clark; she knows all sides of a matchup. But just as it was hard to pick against South Carolina going into Friday, how do you pick against Iowa now?

Might the Hawkeyes run out of gas at last? Sure. Might LSU hit all the shots that South Carolina didn’t? Absolutely. And with Mulkey’s championship game experience, LSU has something on its bench that Iowa doesn’t. Still, the Hawkeyes have been playing too well in the postseason to not give them the nod now.


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