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Mike Lopresti | krikya18.com | April 2, 2024

Never-before-seen college basketball fairytales set to converge at the Final Four

Caitlin Clark erupts for 41 points in Iowa-LSU rematch win

Somebody Up There likes college basketball. Has to. The basketball gods aren’t just smiling on the Final Fours this year — both genders — they are giving them big hugs and kisses on each cheek.

Let’s put the Final Fours next to one another to explain.

The men. Defending champion and rampaging Connecticut made it, with dazed tournament victims scattered behind in its wake.

The women. Unbeaten South Carolina made it. The Gamecocks will be there with its 36-0 record and its championship pedigree and a remade lineup that has flexed the same old muscle. All the starters are gone from 2023, but the more things changed, the more they stayed the same in Columbia.

The men. Zach Edey, everyone’s national player of the year and king of the paint will be there. He’s coming off a remarkable regional championship game of 40 points and 16 rebounds.

The women. Caitlin Clark, everyone’s national player of the year and queen of the 3-point arc, will be there. She just had an extraordinary regional championship game of 41 points and 12 assists. A few of the 3-pointers in Albany were taken from Utica.

TRACKING CAITLIN CLARK: Follow the Iowa star's biggest games and highlights this season

The men. NC State will be bringing its underdog story, confounding logic, overturning the odds. A team that finished 10th in its conference.

The women. Here’s another compelling tale of shock and awe as an unexpected threat powered its way through the bracket. A team picked to finish eighth in its conference with not one player on the preseason all-league team. Wait a minute. That’s NC State, too.

The men. There’s a program in the Final Four for the first time. Welcome to the show, Alabama.

The women. There’s a program in the Final Four for the 23rd time. Welcome back from the dead, UConn and Geno Auriemma. Well, not so much from the dead, but at least from a 4-3 start. That got the Huskies ranked No. 17. Fine for most places, the lowest spot in 30 years for UConn.

Really, could it get any better?

Take Friday night at the women’s Final Four. Connecticut vs. Iowa. Paige Bueckers vs. Caitlin Clark. They met as freshmen in 2021 in the Sweet 16. Clark scored 21 and Bueckers scored 18, but it was the Huskies who rolled on 92-72. There was so, so, so much more to come. Know what Clark said that night? “The reason I came to Iowa is because I wanted to do something special.”

And then some.

Now they meet again. Clark has been on a rocket ride into the stratosphere in fame. Bueckers has had to fight her way back from knee injuries. Could it get any better?

Well, yes. The TV folks could hit a double-winning lottery ticket in the championship games. Imagine...

Sunday. South Carolina seeks to become the 10th unbeaten champion for the women, facing Iowa and Clark in her final college game. The Gamecocks are 78-1 in their past 79 contests, the lone loss to Iowa in last April’s Final Four. A defeat that coach Dawn Staley long brooded upon.

“Last year rocked me. It rocked me because we had a team full of players who did all the right things. All the right things. Gave us no issues for four years. . . If you could have been around that particular group of young ladies, you'd want them to win. We don't know why, and we often try to ask God why. Why? Today I stand here as our why. Doesn't make them feel any better about them not cementing their legacy even more, but I know they're happy and proud of this group and they're happy and proud of South Carolina, where they chose to come to school and create a legacy.”

There has been a strange dynamic at work around South Carolina. Between the constant uproar surrounding Clark and LSU’s ability to wander into some sort of turbulence, the Gamecocks have gone 36-0 almost quietly. Is that possible? “I don't know, but I like it. I really do,” Staley said. “Go ahead, take the spotlight, put it somewhere else. Let this team continue to thrive in the space that they're given. Hopefully at the end of the day, next week this time, I'm hoping that we give a lot of people a lot to talk about.”

So that could be Sunday. Monday could be the Connecticut men closing in on a repeat championship, after one of the most dominating NCAA tournaments ever witnessed, facing Edey in his last game. The Huskies are ranked No. 1. Edey and Purdue have faced 11 ranked opponents this season. They haven’t lost to any of them.

⛹️ 2024 MARCH MADNESS: Men's schedule, dates | Women's schedule, dates

Just imagine.

The men had already put all this possible intrigue in place over the weekend and now the women have come up with the perfect partner Final Four. All manners of fascinating things could happen in Cleveland.

Maybe it’ll be a coronation. The men haven’t had an unbeaten champion in 48 years. The women have had nine since the NCAA tournament began in 1982. The Gamecocks need only two more wins to join the club and make it an even 10 — this after losing every single starter from last season,

“Just proud because we beat the odds,” Staley said. “The odds said that we shouldn't make it back to the Final Four. Just proud of our team and for them believing in themselves. They created a certain level of chemistry and culture, and they stuck with it, and then they allowed us to coach them.”

Maybe there’ll be a mighty upset. Hard to decide what South Carolina number is scarier so far in the tournament. The Gamecocks have trailed a total of 61 seconds in four games, never by more than two points.  The Indiana game was a close call and seemed to suggest some vulnerability, but it is also a fact that South Carolina was never behind in that game. There’s also the 75-18 gap in second chance points so far in the tournament, the massive 145-14 domination in bench points, the 181-127 rebounding differential. And the four opponents have shot a combined 32.4 percent.

“Obviously, the best team in the country. But you're not playing a four-out-of-seven series. You're playing one game, okay?” NC State coach Wes Moore said. “So we've just got to find a way to win one game against them, and it's going to be a big challenge. 

“But, hey, right now, you know, you could tell me we're playing the Trail Blazers, and I'd feel okay. We're in the Final Four. Bring them on. Come on. Clyde Drexler. Bring him back. Bill Walton.”

The Final Four even hit it big in a highly quotable coach.

THE JOURNEY: What defines UConn, Purdue, Alabama and NC State's path to the 2024 Men's Final Four

NC State is in the Final Four when it didn’t even start the season ranked in the top 25. The Wolfpack have busted through a wall of higher regarded opponents and . . . hold it. Are we talking about the NC State men or women? Either way. They’re taking magic carpets to different Final Four locations this weekend, each searching for happy endings 2,000 miles apart. On the women’s side, they summarily disposed of the No. 2 seed in Stanford and No. 1 seed in Texas — both by double digits — to make it through the regional.

“You know, people doubted us, and we didn't care what the media had to say,” said guard Aziaha James. “We didn't care what anybody had to say. We showed up on the court every time, and we proved who we were.” 

She certainly proved who she was. The junior who averaged four points a game as a freshman and just under seven as a sophomore just scored 27 against Texas two days after putting 29 on Stanford. “Just shows a lot about myself, just never giving up,” she said. “People didn't know my name my freshman year, but you know my name now, so you see how I've grown.”

Maybe it’ll be a return to power for Auriemma and UConn that few saw coming this season. He has won 11 national championships and now advanced to 23 Final Fours. The other seven men’s and women’s programs who’ll be playing this weekend have won nine titles combined, and gone to 26 Final Fours.

This trip may have been the hardest, since the adversity his team faced might have been the highest peak in all Connecticut. They lost five players to season-ending injuries and most nights Auriemma has had to make do with a six-player rotation. Bueckers has not rested one minute in the tournament's three games. 

When they started the season 4-3 — unheard of in Storrs — a genuine crisis seemed at hand. Auriemma had one thing to say then. “Our goal is to be a much better team in March than we are (now),” he said.

Now it’s April and they’re in the Final Four.

BRACKET CHALLENGE GAME:  | 

Maybe it’ll be the perfect goodbye for the poster player — not to mention the cereal box player — of the game. What hasn’t Caitlin Clark done, from breaking every scoring record in sight to filling houses everywhere to driving up the stock of poster board companies from all the little girls who needed something for their we love 22 signs? Well, win a national championship is something she hasn’t done. It’s last chance time.

“There’s still two more (games) there to get,” she said Monday. “That’s what makes the Final Four so fun. Anybody can take it. Anybody can win it.

“I think we have the power to do that.”

Count the coach she just beat in on that. After watching Clark run up her 41 points, Kim Mulkey tried to describe LSU’s defensive plans. “Well, there's not a lot of strategy. You've got to guard her. Nobody else seems to be able to guard her. We didn't even guard her last year when we beat them. She's just a generational player."

When it was over Monday night, they passed in the handshake line and Mulkey had a few words for Clark. She later recounted the conversation in two sentences.

“I’m sure glad you’re leaving.”

And . . .

"Girl, you something else. Never seen anything like it.”

True enough. But then there are lots of things that might happen this weekend seldom or never seen before, in two Final Four cities far apart. College basketball is living a blessed April.

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