April 3, 2024 

The Weekly Fast Break: Rocking and rolling to the Final Four

Gamecocks, Hawkeyes, Huskies and the Wolfpack are still dancing

In all the joy of wins and outstanding performances during the 2024 NCAA Tournament, there is the harsh reality for many that their season and possibly careers have come to an end. We have had blow-outs and nail bitters, ugly-but-necessary wins and track meets with scores that left hundreds of bets littering the casino floor. The moments of happiness for some are equaled by the heartbreak of others that do not survive and advance to the Final Four. 

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The road to the 2024 Final Four began three weeks ago with a field of 68 teams that each had their own unique story and path to the NCAA Tournament. After many twists and turns and stopping to pick up your teammates’ shoes off the locker room floor, there is still dancing left to do. The Big Dance arrives in Cleveland, Ohio, home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which means no one sits on the sidelines – all dance cards are full, and the music will get you up out of your seat. 

Coaches will say to string together six wins to capture a national title you need a little bit of luck, talented players, and a team that laser-focused on the task at hand. We here at The Weekly Fast Break know that the teams in the 2024 Final Four can push distractions aside, turn down the volume on the music and prepare to win a championship. They are going to give it their all for the opportunity to be part of a rocking party to raise the hardware on Sunday, April 7. For one more week, we do whatever it takes to be sure our team can survive and advance. It is time to put on your favorite team’s colors, grab your friends and hit the dance floor – the last tunes of this year’s Big Dance are blaring loud and strong!

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National Semifinal #1 – NC State vs. South Carolina at 7 pm ET on ESPN

The Wolfpack came into the 2023-24 season unranked with a host of questions that no one knew how long it would take to answer. Head coach Wes Moore molded his young team quietly into a cohesive unit which would win their first 14 games on the schedule, including victories over UConn, Colorado, and Florida State. They finished in a three-way tie for second in the always tough ACC at 13-5. Fast forward to March Madness and NC State was the No. 3 seed of the Portland 4 Regional. They dispatched with Chattanooga in round one and held off Tennessee in the second 79-72, setting up a matchup with No. 2 seed Stanford in the Sweet 16. NC State battled back from a halftime deficit to outscore the Cardinal, 50-30, in the second half. Stanford All-American Cameron Brink was held in check by the Wolfpack’s physical defense and fouled out with over eight minutes to go in the game. 5’9 junior guard Aziaha James had 29 points to lead all scorers and push NC State into the Elite 8.

Junior Aziaha James and NC State are headed to the Final Four after they dispatched No. 1 seed Texas in the Portland 4 Regional. (Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

The road to the Wolfpack’s first Final Four since 1998 ran though No. 1 seed Texas, who had taken care of No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, 69-47. The Longhorns took advantage of their size and athleticism, dominating NC State with points in the paint (44-24) and on the glass (44-31). Yet regardless of those numbers, the Pack led by 18 at halftime as they attacked Texas off the bounce, getting to the rim and finding open shooters. Texas would battle back, but when NC State need a play to put a bit more distance between themselves and the ‘Horns, James delivered again. The junior knocked down seven three-point shots and led her team with 27 points in 40 minutes. Senior post River Baldwin scored 16 points and junior guard Saniya Rivers added 11 with five assists in 40 minutes. Moore and his team exercised the demons that hovered over his program from their last trip to the Elite 8 — a double-OT loss to UConn in 2022. Now they pack for the Final Four, along with their men’s team who will head to the Final Four themselves, for the first time since 1983. You can bet that Jim Valvano is smiling and dancing about Wolfpack basketball this week.

While NC State has faced tough competition all season, there may not be anything that can get you ready for South Carolina. The only team, men’s or women’s to enter the NCAA field undefeated and still rolling, the Gamecocks head to Cleveland as the champions of the Albany 1 Regional. They won their first two games in the Big Dance by a margin of 49.5 points as the No. 1 seed and fought off No. 4 seed Indiana, 79-75, in the Sweet 16. No one thought Dawn Staley’s team would bulldoze through the regional, and No. 3 seed Oregon State was next up to give them a test. The Beavers had taken down No. 2 seed Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 led by a pair of sophomore forwards who posted double-doubles – 6’3 Timea Gardiner (21 and 11) and 6’4 Raegan Beers (18 and 13). 

Freshman guard Tessa Johnson (5) came off the bench for No. 1 seed South Carolina to give the Gamecocks a much needed life against Oregon State and get them back to the Final Four. (Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports)

The Gamecocks took a five-point lead into halftime over Oregon State (37-33) but pounced on the Beavers in the third quarter and never looked back. The balance of Staley’s squad was on full display, as three players hit double figures and the top scorer came off the bench. Freshman guard Tessa Johnson added 15 points in 21 minutes and helped pick up the slack when other starters were out of rhythm. They dominated OSU on the glass, corralling 22 offensive rebounds on the day. South Carolina has the top scoring defense left in the NCAA Tournament (56 points per game) and held OSU to just 36% from the field. 

This is the fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four for South Carolina and the second in a row arriving to the national semifinals undefeated. Staley has an entirely new starting lineup from a year ago and a group that seems to embrace the magnitude of the moments in front of them. Unstoppable? Not necessarily (see the 2023 Final Four results). Very difficult to beat? Absolutely.

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National Semifinal #2 – UConn vs Iowa at 9:30 pm ET on ESPN

The question that is coming from every corner of America this week, from new and old women’s basketball fans, is whether one player alone get a team to the Final Four. From performances we have seen throughout this season, the overexcited answer is “YES”, but we are here to tell you that no one gets this far in the Big Dance without a team who all waltz together on the same beat. 

With so many UConn players out with injuries this season, senior guard Nike Mühl has been an iron woman on the floor. She and the Huskies are headed to Cleveland and the Final Four. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra/The Next)

As the 2023-24 season wore on, there were more players in warmups on the UConn bench then available to enter the game for head coach Geno Auriemma. A rash of season-ending injuries plagued the Huskies and yet they rattled off another pair of Big EAST regular season and tournament titles. They entered the Portland 3 Regional as the No. 3 seed, winning their first and second round games in Storrs. Their Sweet 16 opponent was No. 7 seed Duke who had upset Ohio State in the second round, 75-63. In a grind-it-out, not-pretty-for-viewing game, UConn prevailed 53-45 to advance to their 28th regional final in program history. Their Elite 8 opponent would be the No. 1 seed USC, which brought us our first marquee matchup – UConn’s Paige Bueckers against USC’s freshman superstar, JuJu Watkins.  

It was a back-and-forth first half, with both All-Americans making big shots and Auriemma managing critical foul trouble. Lindsay Gottlieb, just in her third season at USC, had more depth to play with and was finding ways to deliver the ball to Watkins in open space where she could operate. The second half continued like the first, but with the Huskies leading 65-64, Bueckers put her UConn on her back and would not be denied her third trip to the Final Four. They scored 11 straight points, including seven from Bueckers and a three-point play from 6’3 senior Aaliyah Edwards to finally put away the top-seeded Trojans, 80-73. Bueckers (28 points and 10 boards), Edwards (24 points) and guard Nika Mühl all played 40 minutes for the Huskies. Watkins finished with 29 points (9-for-25 from the field) in her first career NCAA Tournament. Now UConn sleeps fast, gets in the training room and brainstorms a gameplan to try and stop the all-time scorer in college basketball history. 

When they needed her the most, UConn guard Paige Bueckers delivered a 28-point performance to knock off No. 1 seed USC.
(Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

This season the questions have been coming fast and furious at the Iowa program as to whether this team had the pieces to get back to the Final Four. Everyone knew they had senior sensation Caitlin Clark, winner of almost every award imaginable but one has eluded her — national champion. The Hawkeyes made it to the Final Four for the first time since 1993 last year and were wanting to get back to college basketball’s biggest stage. But would the supporting cast this year be enough? They entered the Big Dance as the No. 1 seed in the Albany 2 Regional, hosting their first two games in front of sell-out home crowds and escaping a tough defensive effort by West Virginia in round two.

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Iowa drew No. 5 seed Colorado in the Sweet 16, which was a rematch from a year ago. The Hawkeyes handled the Buffaloes’ pressure defense and coasted to an 89-68 win. Clark led all scorers with 29 points and added 15 assists. Next up was another rematch and the one everyone wanted to see – last year’s national championship game, Iowa vs. LSU. The Tigers were in their second-straight Elite 8 after beating No. 2 seed UCLA, 78-69, and struggled from the first possession against Iowa to contain Clark. Defensive lapses (going under screens and not containing penetration) gave Iowa easy looks early, but it was tied at halftime. 

LSU never seemed to have an answer in the Elite 8 to stopping Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who has now led her team to back-to-back Final Fours. (Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports)

While LSU was not to be denied in 2023, this was Clark and company’s turn on this big stage. She finished with 41 points, including nine makes from behind the arc, and 12 assists. Many of those pin-point passes were to fellow senior Kate Martin (21 points and 6 boards), junior Sydney Affolter (16 points) and sophomore post Hannah Stuelke, who was saddled with foul trouble most of the game. LSU sophomore Flau’jae Johnson put her talents on display for what was the most watched women’s college basketball game on record (12.3M viewers) with 23 points. All-American Angel Reese finished with 17 points and 20 rebounds before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. In the end it was not enough as Iowa took down the reigning national champions 94-87 to send them to their second straight Final Four.

Now, sports fans of all ages everywhere are going to get yet another stellar matchup on Friday, April 5: Paige vs. Caitlin. If you ask us, we think it is going to everything we could want and more — just how a national semifinal game should be. But do not sleep on the other four players on the court for their respective teams — there is a reason these two programs are in the Final Four. Basketball is a team game — and we are here for all of it.

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We have spent the season here at The Weekly Fast Break working to chase the loose balls that have led us to the amazing stories that makes women’s college basketball so special. Whether it has been outstanding team accomplishments, record-setting individual performances, fabulous freshmen who turned heads and even controversial or difficult topics, we see the parity that is growing the women’s game and the interest in it as well. The Final Four will be a fantastic display of players, coaches and teams who have absolutely earned their way onto this dance floor. We have not made any predictions this season on games, only told you who you should keep an eye on throughout the year. But that all changes this week – it is time to boogie in Cleveland at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Get your dancing shoes on friends – the biggest dance of the college basketball season awaits.

National Championship Game: South Carolina vs. Iowa on Sunday, April 7

2024 National Champions: South Carolina Gamecocks

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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