April 4, 2023
The Weekly Fast Break: A sparkly new champion
How LSU capped a season unlike any other in the sport — What's next?
When the women’s college basketball season began in November 2022, you could sense that it was going to be an amazing ride from start to finish. Whether it was early non-conference matchups, some in the sunshine by a beach, or the knock-down, drag out battles of conference play that would set the stage for the postseason which concluded with a first-time champion, we have been witness to greatness and resilience.
We had head coaches debuting at new schools, working to rebuild programs in some of the best conferences in the nation. We cheered on another class of “super seniors” who returned for this season because of their extra year of eligibility due to the COVID pandemic. There were so many record-setting performances across the country that it was hard to keep track, from triple-doubles to double-doubles to scoring records and rebounding marks. Next were the conference championship trophies handed out from coast-to-coast in March for both regular season and tournament titles. And then it was awards time, with conference and national recognitions given to the most deserving of young women in a host of categories.
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We had four teams take significant winning streaks into the NCAA Tournament, a testament to their teamwork and drive to keep winning and playing as long as they could. For UNLV (22 games) and Gardner-Webb (21 games) their streaks were snapped in the first round of the Big Dance. South Dakota State (22 games) had their season ended in the Round of 32 and South Carolina, carrying a 42-game winning streak into the Final Four, was looking to add back-to-back national titles to their legacy.
The 2023 NCAA Tournament delivered with every possible scenario and emotion you can imagine, with record-setting crowds and television viewership. We had buzzer-beaters, decisive wins, devastating losses, and historical victories. We saw Cinderella glide into the Sweet 16 only to see her time on the big stage end sooner than she wanted. We watched veteran starters miss key shots to help extend their team’s season and unknown names become folk heroes on their campus back home. The heartbreaking part is the reality that only one team ends the year bathed in happiness and confetti. The other 67 teams are left with sadness and the ‘what if’s’ that you play on repeat in your head for weeks after. But there is joy in the journey and March Madness has given us an amazing ride. For three weeks, the best road to travel has been the one to the Final Four and it gave us all we could have hoped for and more.
A wise man once told me that there is a reason we play the games – to challenge ourselves, to showcase our skills and to see where we stack up against the competition. But he also said that on any given night, anyone can beat their opponent. You must believe enough in your team to get the job done. The 2023 Final Four became the story of exactly that – nothing is given, everything is earned, and we play the games to see who can capture the title of National Champion.
TIP OFF ~ NATIONAL SEMIFINALS (Friday, March 31)
Both national semifinals were filled with storylines that created buzz all week in Dallas. There was the first timer in Virginia Tech, the amazing turnaround story of LSU, a generational talent on an Iowa team full of veterans and South Carolina, the reigning national champions. What we got were two games that gave everyone tuning into women’s basketball a fantastic display of talent, teamwork, and grace under pressure.
Virginia Tech, seeded No. 1 in the Seattle 3 Regional, burst onto the Final Four scene as one of the hottest teams in the nation. Led by ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley and sharp-shooting point guard Georgia Amoore, Kenny Brooks’ team was poised to handle the big stage and more. The Hokies faced an opponent in No. 3 seed LSU that would mirror many teams they saw in ACC play – quick guards, length on the perimeter, size in the post and a dominate scoring and rebounding force in sophomore Angel Reese. Virginia Tech answered the big moment and after leading by just two at half, lengthened their lead to 12 midway through the third quarter.
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Challenged by head coach Kim Mulkey, LSU turned up the intensity on defense and held Virginia Tech to just 13 points in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Hokies 29-13 in the final ten minutes. The Tigers caused 18 turnovers on the night and had just seven of their own, capitalizing on mistakes and getting key baskets down the stretch. Senior guard Alexis Morris was the catalyst for LSU, posting 27 points on 11-for-27 shooting and Reese registered another double-double with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Even with four players in double figures, led by Kitley with 18, it would not be enough to get past LSU, who moved into the national championship game with a 79-72 win.
The second national semifinal game was the one that the sports world had been waiting for – the nation’s best scorer against the best defense in the country. From opening tip, you could sense that this would be a battle, as South Carolina looked to take one step closer to repeating as national champions. In their way were the Iowa Hawkeyes, led by the junior guard Caitlin Clark, the Associated Press and Naismith National Player of the Year. Both teams are filled with veterans who do not shrink from the challenge in a 40-minute game we say various players step up to the challenge.
Iowa raced to a nine-point lead in the first quarter, fueled by hot shooting and a triangle and two defensive strategy that forced the Gamecocks to rely on their perimeter shooting. South Carolina finished the game just 4-of-20 from three, but with their size advantage inside, cleaned up misses and extended possessions with 26 offensive rebounds and 46 points in the paint. Iowa was able to answer every run that the Gamecocks made, led by none other than Clark, who finished the night with 41 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Clark is just the second player to score 40 or more points in an NCAA Women’s Final Four game and finished the national semifinal scoring 16 of Iowa’s final 18 points in the fourth quarter. Fifth year senior Monika Czinano chipped in 18 points, while Gamecock guard Zia Cooke led her team with 24 points, but it was not enough to deny Iowa their first win over a top-ranked opponent in program history, 77-72.
FILM ROOM ~ NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME (Sunday, April 2)
The 2023 National Championship game is a stage that neither Iowa or LSU had ever reached prior to Sunday afternoon, each making the finals for the first time in program history. For LSU’s Kim Mulkey, she is no stranger to the national championship stage, having won three titles as head coach at Baylor. But in just her second season in Baton Rouge, this feat seemed almost unimaginable, even for Mulkey. Lisa Bluder has been the head coach at Iowa for 23 years and is the all-time winningest coach in program history yet had never gotten her program to the Final Four, let alone the title game.
Beyond the hype of sequins, red carpet entrances, mascot photos and smoke-filled entrances, a new national champion was set to be crowned in Dallas. Iowa ran out to a lead in the opening few minutes, forcing Mulkey to take a quick timeout. But then the Tigers went on the offensive, feeding the post, penetrating downhill and opening the floor to knock down threes. Both teams were saddled with foul trouble in the first half, causing starters to spend chunks of time on the bench and giving meaningful minutes to reserves. The LSU bench came to play and helped the Tigers go 21-for-36 from the field in the first half (58%) and 9-of-12 from three. The Hawkeyes could not match the scorched nets on the other end, down 59-42 at half with 11 turnovers and eight less field goals made.
The second half would be an uphill battle for Clark and company who went on a 15-2 run to cut the LSU lead to nine points in the third quarter, but a balanced attack from the Tigers and Iowa’s foul trouble would shut the door on the Hawkeyes’ comeback hopes. For a team that struggled to score at times in the NCAA Tournament, LSU claimed their first national basketball title, women’s or men’s, with a 102-85 victory. Offense came easy on Sunday afternoon, with Reese carding another double-double but it was the lift from others that was the difference. Senior Jasmine Carson came in off the bench to knock down five three-point shots on her way to 22 points. Morris closed her senior season with another fantastic performance, running the show out front with 22 points, 9 assists and just two turnovers, while 6’4 senior LaDazhia Williams went 9-for-16 from the field for 20 points in the paint.
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This game was called very tight in the first quarter, loosened up a bit in the middle and was laden with a heavy whistle in the final 10 minutes. The two teams were called for a combined 37 personal fouls, a NCAA Tournament single-game record. Clark finished the day with 30 points while Czinano and senior Kate Martin added 13 points and guard Gabbie Marshall netted 12 for Iowa.
LSU did what some thought was completely unimaginable in just the second year of a program re-build, but the Mulkey factor proved yet again to be the right equation. From generating buzz and energy in Baton Rouge to creating a space where players want to come from high school and the portal to giving others a second or third chance, LSU built a championship-caliber team. No one hands out national titles – they are earned, and the Tigers most definitely earned their place on the 2023 championship stage.
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The Final Four was filled with great players who put up outstanding numbers and performances. The 2023 All-Tournament team was announced following LSU’s win as the following:
Most Outstanding Player – Angel Reese, LSU sophomore forward
The sophomore All-American posted a double-double in each game in Dallas and impacted the outcomes on both ends of the floor. Against Iowa, she had 15 points and 10 rebounds and drew six fouls, which was an important turning point in the game with Iowa’s interior players saddled with foul trouble. In just her first season under Kim Mulkey, Reese has become one of the best players in the country and will be again next season.
Alexis Morris, LSU senior guard
Morris averaged 24 points in the two games of the Final Four and added nine assists in the national championship. Morris reunited at LSU with Mulkey after she had dismissed her from the Baylor programs just a few years before. She proved herself to be a dominant point guard in the SEC this year and the Final Four.
Jasmine Carson, LSU senior guard
Carson played just 13 minutes and did not score in the semifinal game against Virginia Tech but when her time came on Sunday, she delivered. The Memphis, TN native played almost 22 minutes and scored 22 points, exploding from the three-point line when the Tigers needed a lift from the perimeter. She was 5-for-6 on the day, including the buzzer-beater bank shot at the end of the first half to give her team a 17-point lead going into the locker room.
Caitlin Clark, Iowa junior guard
The consensus national Player of the Year did not disappoint on the biggest stage in college basketball. Clark had 41 points in the semifinal win over South Carolina and led her team with 30 in the finals while dealing with foul trouble throughout the game. She also averaged eight assists in the Final Four, showcasing her scoring and playmaking skills for all the sports world to see.
Zia Cooke, South Carolina senior guard
When the Gamecocks could not find the range from outside in the national semifinals, Zia Cooke was able to single-handedly keep her team in the game against Iowa. She finished with 24 points on 11-of-21 from the field and eight rebounds, finishing at the rim on several occasions when her team needed a basket. Cooke was named to the AP All-American Third Team and was an All-SEC First Team selection.
A FULL COURT PRESS THANK YOU
Now that they 2022-23 college basketball season has come to an end, The Weekly Fastbreak is going to take an extended TV timeout. It has a been a true pleasure to share the stories of our game, good and bad, each week. At The Next, we are grateful for our readers who support our work and allow us to bring you the stories, analysis and extras that help elevate women’s basketball across the country and the globe. Here at The Weekly Fastbreak, we want to thank the countless women’s basketball communications contacts who have helped us with statistics, stories, and photos throughout the season. Some of the best SID’s in America work in women’s basketball and we tip our cap to your continued efforts.
But even if the timeout coordinator seems a little late in bringing us back to live action, do not worry – we will be back throughout the off-season to keep you up to date on things happening in the world of college basketball. Until then, we suggest you use the off-season to work on your game so you can increase your playing time next season. And possible think about who has the best odds to be the 2024 National Champion. Are you ready to make your pick?
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State 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, 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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