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The NCAA women's Final Four has both fresh faces and the defending champs

The South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate after their Monday night win over Maryland.
Maddie Meyer
/
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The South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate after their Monday night win over Maryland.

Updated March 31, 2023 at 8:11 AM ET

Louisiana State is back in the women's Final Four for the first time in 15 years. For Iowa, it's been three decades. And Virginia Tech is here for the first time ever.

Before last weekend, the NCAA Division I women's college basketball tournament already was marked by historic parity. Now it has its first Final Four in 38 years to feature none of the sport's longtime Goliaths — Tennessee, Stanford and UConn.

The only familiar face in this year's Final Four is the defending champions, South Carolina, who breezed to victory in last year's tournament and were this year's #1 overall seed. Yet even the Gamecocks are relative newcomers to tournament glory: They made their first-ever Final Four appearance only eight years ago.

The women's tournament long has been dogged by less parity than the men's event, which is famous for its upsets and Cinderella runs — see their 2023 Final Four, which includes surprising Florida Atlantic and none of the top 12 teams.

The fresh lineup for the women's final weekend is an opportunity to celebrate the women's game more widely, said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley ahead of Monday night's game.

"This is a new history that we're venturing into, because there are so many great players and parity in our league that we need to start documenting," she said.

The Gamecocks, led by star forward Aliyah Boston, face a formidable semifinal opponent in No. 2 Iowa. In their last game, the Hawkeyes' buzzsaw guard Caitlin Clark notched 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the first-ever 40-point triple-double in the NCAA tournament — women's or men's.

Clark's stellar play has propelled Iowa to its first Final Four since 1993. "When I came here, I said I wanted to take this program to the Final Four, and all you gotta do is dream," Clark said after Iowa's 97-83 Elite Eight victory over Louisville. "Then all you gotta do is believe and work your butt off to get there."

The other top seed, Virginia Tech, hasn't lost a game since January. Their opponent, 3-seed Louisiana State, will hope to match the lowest seed ever to win the women's tournament. That's been done by only two teams before: North Carolina in 1994 and Tennessee in 1997.

Friday's lineup

No. 3 LSU vs. No. 1 Virginia Tech at 7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN

No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 1 South Carolina at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN

Additional reporting by NPR's Tom Goldman. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.