The South Carolina Gamecocks Capture Their Second March Madness Title
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Women’s March Madness has been exhilarating to watch this year. 1.5 million brackets were filled out and viewership continues to rise, with the championship game becoming the the most-watched national championship in 18 years. This year’s women’s tournament included many upsets, as competition has noticeably increased in the past years, especially among the mid-tier Division 1 teams. However, there was one team that prevailed above them all, and that was the South Carolina Gamecocks. Their incredible journey throughout this season and tournament is one to remember.
A memorable game in the tournament was certainly the Elite Eight game of NC State vs. UConn, which went into double overtime and became the first double overtime game in any women’s March Madness regional final. Both teams were constantly hot throughout the game, barely trailing each other by more than five points at a time. From UConn’s Dorka Juhasz’s wrist fracture in the first quarter to NC State’s Jakia Brown-Turner banking in a clutch three with 0.8 seconds left to go into double overtime, this game had all of the drama. UConn’s star point guard Paige Bueckers hasn’t been playing her best since coming back from injury, but she looked like her old self during overtime, shooting five for five from the field (until a missed shot in late 2OT) and six for six in free throws.
Other standout moments included Fran Belibi’s dunk in the first round against Montana State, the first dunk in the women’s tournament since 2013, and an inspirational word from Michigan’s Danielle Rauch. The senior, teary-eyed, stated, “I didn’t know if I was going to play a minute at Michigan and I just played in the Elite Eight as a starting point guard for this university […] and playing next to [Naz Hillmon] I got to play with the greatest player in Michigan Women’s Basketball History and she’s also my best friend. […] I wouldn’t trade anything I went through to get to this point because it all made it possible for us to get here.”
The Creighton Bluejays were underdogs of this tournament. Seeded 10 in their region, they managed to get all the way to the Elite Eight, making their first Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight appearances ever. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), they were only given a 6 percent chance in making the Elite Eight. They defeated the second-seed Iowa Hawkeyes in the second round and the third-seed Iowa State Cyclones in the Sweet Sixteen before losing to the eventual champions, the South Carolina Gamecocks, in the Elite Eight. Remarkably, the Bluejays had a similar run to Saint Peter’s on the men’s side, seed-wise, as they also beat a seven seed, a two seed, and a three seed. What stood out about this team was their balanced offense and aggressive defense. The Bluejays’s defense was able to hold Iowa’s star Caitlin Clark and Iowa State’s Aubrey Joens to a combined 7-of-30 (23.2 percent) from the field. Offensively, any player on Creighton could get you a bucket, so elite defense by the opposing team was crucial if they wanted a chance in defeating the Bluejays.
South Dakota also deserves a shoutout. They too were a 10 seed that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, with a notable game beating two seed Baylor in the second round.
Despite women’s basketball becoming increasingly competitive each year, the women’s tournament still garners less upsets than it does on the men’s side. Creighton and South Dakota’s Cinderella run being one of the first double digit seeds to enter the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight shows that the game is changing.
Disappointments and Early Exits
Major disappointments came from Baylor, Iowa, and Iowa State. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark played incredible all season for the second-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes, setting the expectations high. Yet they fell short in the tournament, losing to Creighton in the second round. The Iowa State Cyclones, led by Ashley Joens, also fell to Creighton in the Sweet Sixteen. Baylor, the two-seed in the Wichita region, was also expected to go farther this season, dominating in the first round against Hawaii 89-49, but then getting upset in the second round to South Dakota by a sizable margin of 61-47. Baylor, a team that averaged 77 points per game, was held to four points in the first quarter of that game. 11th seeded Princeton also pulled an upset against sixth seeded Kentucky in the first round, but lost to Indiana in round two. The women’s game is starting to pull more upsets within the mid-D1 schools and fans are all for it.
South Carolina Does What They’ve Done All Season: Dominate.
This season, the South Carolina team became a different beast. Watching highlights of every game in the regular season, you could see how special this team was. They ended the regular season with a record of 35-2. After losing in the Final Four to Stanford last season, they had a target on their back, and they proved how badly they wanted that national title this season.
Throughout the tournament, they were beating teams by margins as big as 30 and 58 points. They started the season as the Number One ranked team in the Associated Press poll and never gave it up, and their game against UConn proved just why they were the best team all season.
Going into the championship game, South Carolina had the Player of the Year and Coach of the Year in Aliyah Boston and Dawn Staley. It wasn’t going to be an easy matchup for UConn. In fact, Coach Geno Auriemma has called this year’s UConn team, “The hardest, most trying, most emotionally and physically exhausting season that I’ve ever experienced.” With eight players missing at least one game in the season, including Paige Bueckers out for 19 games with a knee injury, UConn had been tested time and time again. By the first three minutes of the championship game, the Gamecocks’ incredible offense had given them an 11-point lead, at 13-2. UConn wasn’t scoring well all night, with Olivia Nelson-Ododa playing through a groin injury, Azzi Fudd playing through a stomach bug, and Bueckers not getting a single bucket until well into the second quarter.
Throughout the game, South Carolina couldn't be matched. Destanni Henderson had her best game of the season with 26 points. And while Boston did not have her best scoring night, she was incredible defensively with 16 boards for South Carolina— a crucial factor in their victory. In the end, through great defense and coaching, the Gamecocks won in a respectable margin of 64-49, marking a well-deserved win.