Brea Beal’s defense lifts South Carolina to Final Four
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Brea Beal is not just South Carolina’s X factor in one of the country’s best defenses but also a four-year lesson in sacrifice and reinvention that may add a second straight NCAA title to her resume.
Beal is generally third when most think of the landmark recruiting class from 2019 led by heralded All-American Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke. But she could have the most critical role at the Final Four, most likely checking Iowa’s All-American Caitlin Clark in the national semifinals.
The Gamecocks (36-0) face the Hawkeyes (30-6) in the second game in Dallas on Friday night, with the winner playing LSU or Virginia Tech for the national title on Sunday.
Beal, who has started 136 of 137 games in her four seasons, and her senior teammates have racked up championships in their time. They have won three Southeastern Conference Tournament titles, have been to three straight Final Fours and are chasing their second NCAA crown.
Beal takes on the opponent’s best player and, more times than not, limits her effectiveness – a role that took Beal time to embrace.
“It definitely came with some hardship, but throughout time I just walked into it,” she said at the Greenville 1 Regional last weekend.
It wasn’t a path Beal envisioned after a celebrated prep career. She was a three-time Illinois Ms. Basketball from Rock Island High School, averaging 20 or more points a game her final three seasons. Beal joined Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings as the only players in the state to earn that award as a sophomore.
Beal expected to make the offensive impact that Boston and Cooke have had with the Gamecocks.
“It’s not necessarily something I was like, ‘I’m this defender, I’m the best defender,’” Beal said. “It came naturally, just as well as offensively, it’s just something you’ve got to be patient and just accept as time goes.”
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley sees Beal’s value as more than what she does on the court. Beal, overlooked sometimes behind Boston and Cooke, didn’t look to transfer in the portal era or complain about her scoring. She has kept her head down, Staley said, and made herself an indispensable part of the undefeated defending national champions.
“It took her time to just really relax and see where she can find spots to be effective,” Staley said. “Now that she’s a senior, she sees it.”
Clark, the Iowa star, would have to be one of Beal’s most difficult assignments. Clark had a triple-double – 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds – in the Hawkeyes’ 97-83 victory over Louisville to reach their first Final Four in 30 years.
Clark is not one-dimensional – “I pride myself in doing a lot of different things for this team,” she said – and Beal understands it will take a team effort to slow her down.
South Carolina has relied on its defense throughout Beal’s time and this year’s run is no different. The Gamecocks lead the country in blocks and rebound margin, are second in field-goal percentage defense and are third in points allowed.
Cooke believes it’s Beal’s defensive focus that has all the Gamecocks looking to raise their intensity on that side of their game. “She’s the one that taught us how to play defense,” Cooke said. “Especially me. Just watching her and the things she does definitely wore off on me.”
Cooke’s offense may be elevating Beal’s game as of late. Beal has scored in double digits in eight games this season, seven of those since the start of February. She had 10 points in a 59-43 win over UCLA in the Sweet 16 and 16 in an 86-75 victory over Maryland in the Elite Eight.
Once considered the most likely of the 2019 freshmen class to play an extra season, the dual threat has been rising in WNBA mock drafts. ESPN.com has projected her getting called seventh in next month’s draft, going to the Indiana Fever in the first round.
Beal isn’t worried about her pro prospects or savoring all she’s accomplished. She only wants to finish her college career with another championship moment – and that means dialing up the defense.
“We’re a defensively minded team,” she said. “When we come to this part of the season, we definitely need our defense from every single individual.”
Dan Hurley’s rebuild complete as UConn returns to Final Four
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
STORRS, Conn. – Before every home game, UConn’s hype man gets on his microphone and greets the crowd with, “Welcome to the basketball capital of the Wooooorrrrld!”
With four men’s NCAA championship banners hanging from the ceiling at Gampel Pavilion along with 11 women’s banners, it’s not an entirely empty brag.
The Huskies (29-8) are the biggest name left playing basketball this season, making the Final Four as a No. 4 seed, joining Miami (29-7) and San Diego State (31-6), both No. 5 seeds, and ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic (35-3).
But while Connecticut can boast the most titles of any school in college basketball over the last quarter-century, this week’s trip to the Final Four is the men’s first since their last championship in 2014.
In between, UConn went through a down period that included three straight losing seasons between 2017 and 2019 while languishing in the American Athletic Conference. It fired coach Kevin Ollie, lost a subsequent legal battle over his salary and endured NCAA sanctions.
When Dan Hurley took the job in 2018, his charge was to restore luster to the brand.
“The timeline, with the way that we did it, building a culture and doing it without cheating, without lying and doing it with integrity and building it the right way, I mean, we’re exactly on time,” Hurley said Tuesday.
Hurley credits good recruiting, including the additions this year of freshmen Alex Karaban, a starting forward from nearby Southborough, Massachusetts, and Donovan Clingan, a 7-foot-2 center from Bristol. UConn followers growing up, both have played key roles.
And there were the transfer portal pickups, including starting point guard Tristen Newton and role players Joey Calcaterra, Nahiem Alleyne and Hassan Diarra.
“I would definitely say the history was a huge component of why I came here,” Karaban said. “Seeing the four banners up there and seeing what coach (Jim) Calhoun had built and for it to be close to home for me as well was a major factor. It was something I wanted to do in my college career. I wanted to win national championships and make it to the Final Four and I wanted to add myself to history, to what was a super-cemented, historical program.”
Calhoun, the Hall of Fame coach who built UConn from a regional powerhouse into a national one, winning titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011, said Hurley has done a good job capitalizing on that foundation, including filling the school’s practice facility with pictures of past championships and Huskies who went on to the NBA.
The school’s decision to leave the American and rejoin the Big East in 2020 also was a factor, he said.
“It helped, there’s no question,” Calhoun said. “It helped get recruits. The competition, the opportunity to go great places and play great places. Nothing against the American, but the Big East is one of the two or three best basketball conferences in the country. We have teams that traveled very far in the tournament.”
The Huskies haven’t lost a nonconference game all season, and the battles in the Big East, where they lost eight times, have helped harden them for the tournament, Calhoun said.
Hurley said he’s been relying heavily on advice from Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma on how to prepare his Huskies for everything that surrounds a trip to Houston and a date with Miami.
The Hurricanes are coached by Jim Larrañaga, who rose to fame when he coached 11th-seed George Mason to an upset win over Calhoun’s top-seeded UConn team in the 2006 regional finals. Larrañaga sees a lot of similarities in that matchup and this one – a shorter underdog against a much bigger blue blood with a longer history of success.
“We’re like 6-4, 6-6, 6-7 and UConn is huge,” he said. “So, it’s an interesting matchup in terms of contrasting bigs versus smalls.”
But while the Huskies are 8-1 in Final Four games, Hurley said the program’s tradition won’t help his team on Saturday.
“Having an incredible brand, it’s great, because that means you have a huge fan base and generally there’s going to be a pretty good commitment in terms of resources,” he said. “But if you don’t have the right people – if I don’t have the right coaching staff – being a blue blood doesn’t, I mean, there’s a lot of teams at home right now that are blue bloods.”
Women making case in tourney for own March Madness TV deal
Women’s basketball seems to have found a winner with its new Sweet 16 format in March Madness and the timing couldn’t be better with looming TV contract negotiations on the horizon.
There were record-setting attendance at the two sites – Greenville, South Carolina and Seattle – along with record numbers for TV ratings. It fueled the momentum heading into a star-packed Final Four lineup in Dallas.
NCAA selection committee chair Lisa Peterson expects the format success to help in upcoming contract negotiations. The current NCAA TV deal ends next summer.
“It has to,” she said. “I’m very much looking forward to seeing those conversations. It only can be good for the game. People are talking about it.”
TV ratings for games on Friday and Saturday averaged 1.2 million viewers, a 73% increase over last year. Saturday afternoon’s Ohio State and UConn matchup on ABC was the most watched women’s Sweet 16 game on record with an average of 2.4 million.
Ratings were also up for the games Sunday and Monday on ESPN – up 43% gain and averaged 2.2 million. Sunday night’s Iowa-Louisville contest which featured dynamic guard Caitlin Clark led the way at 2.5 million, making it the most watched Elite Eight game on record.
Tag Garson, Wasserman’s senior vice president of properties, said this year’s ratings will be one of many pieces that factor into what path the NCAA will take.
“When you’re looking at how ratings are performing as you’re preparing for a negotiation you don’t just look at one year,” he said. “You’re looking at the historical value while projecting out the future value.”
The NCAA is expected to decide by this fall whether to separate the women’s tournament or keep it as part of the championships TV package that includes at least 24 sports.
Peterson and her group will have a lot to review.
Arenas in Greenville and Seattle were mostly full which created an entertaining atmosphere. While attendance was expected to be high in Greenville with the undefeated Gamecocks there. the closest team to Seattle was Colorado – 1,300 miles away.
The distance didn’t stop fans from flocking to Seattle, with strong support from basketball fans around the city thanks in part to the success of the WNBA’s Storm over the last two decades. In the end, the Seattle region outdrew its South Carolina counterpart by a few thousand. Overall 82,275 fans took in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games, including 43,556 in Seattle.
“It really was a great atmosphere to play in. You love to play in these kind of atmospheres with this kind of crowd and play in a great building like this,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma whose team played in Seattle.
The NCAA also hopes the success leads to more cities bidding to host the regional games and eventually the Final Four.
“The number of cities that had bid (in the past), we didn’t have that many more options,” Peterson said. “With the success we’ve had hopefully it opens up new doors so we don’t keep going to the same cities.”
The local organizing committee in Seattle said that they expected the tournament to generate more than $8.3 million to the city.
“When we host events like this there’s no playbook to say it’s a guaranteed success,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell told The Associated Press. “You don’t know how the fans are going to come out, but what has been proven time and time again, particularly around women’s sports is that they come from all over the state even come from Canada. … The revenue is incredible for our tax base.”
Harrell threw Seattle’s hat in the ring for a future women’s Final Four, saying he would love it if his city got that opportunity.
One of the next steps the NCAA is planning for upcoming two regional sites is to turn them into “mini Final Fours.”
Many fans seemed to enjoy the new format going to more than just their team’s games. Dave Lichliter, who is from Pennsylvania, went to games both Friday and Saturday and enjoyed the expanded field.
“You get to see more teams,” said Lichliter, who was wearing an LSU championship football shirt from 2019. “Next year is Albany (New York) and Portland (Oregon), so we’ll see how that goes.”
So will the NCAA.
The two-city format will be in place at least another three years. The next bid cycle starts in July where regional hosting will be decided from 2027-31.
“We’re doing this for three years. It’s not a permanent deal,” Peterson said. “As always we’ll evaluate it. If we feel it doesn’t work, we’ll see what we need to do to change it. Whether it’s changing formats, or if that’s adding a day, Whatever that looks like, we’ll keep looking at it.”
There were a few logistical bumps with the two sites.
With eight schools at one venue required some adjustments by teams and arena staffs. Practice time on the court was cut from 90 minutes to 60 to allow all eight time on the court. It also required a little more coordination when it came to the locker rooms with teams having to double up.
But none of it seem to bother the players. Some said it felt like an AAU tournament from their younger days with so many teams in the same place.
“I think it’s fun. I think it’s cool,” said Clark, before he Hawkeyes guard added: “Obviously we’re not going to be coming to all the games, that’s just not really how it works, but I think I like the two regional sites.”
North Texas reaches NIT finals, shuts down Wisconsin 56-54
Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
LAS VEGAS – Tylor Perry scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half, Rubin Jones scored all 12 of his after halftime and North Texas closed on a 10-0 run to beat Wisconsin 56-54 on Tuesday night in the semifinals of the NIT.
North Texas (30-7) advances to the program’s first NIT championship game on Thursday. Conference USA is now 16-1 this postseason.
North Texas, which trailed 41-29 at halftime, took its first lead of the game at 56-54 with 2:08 remaining on Moulaye Sissoko’s shot in the lane to cap a 10-0 run.
Wisconsin forward Tyler Wahl missed two free throws with 49.1 seconds left and North Texas worked the clock down before Perry had it poked away. Wahl had a shot blocked at the rim, but Wisconsin secured the loose ball and called a timeout with 5.8 left. Wisconsin got it inside to Wahl but Sissoko knocked it away and dove on the ball to end it.
The Mean Green, the nation’s leader in scoring defense at 55.7 points per game, held Wisconsin without a point for the final 9:07 of the game. The Badgers made just one of their last 16 shots – with 10 straight misses.
Kai Huntsberry scored four of his 12 points in the game-closing run for North Texas, which extended its program record for wins this season.
Chucky Hepburn scored all 15 of his points in the first half for Wisconsin (20-15), which was making its first appearance in the NIT semifinals.
Wisconsin dropped to 13-8 this season in games decided by five points or fewer.
The semifinals and final are being played at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas after Madison Square Garden in New York hosted every year but two since 1938, with the 2020 tournament canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 event held in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The 2024 semifinals and final will be played at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
LSU’s Kim Mulkey senses reunion in trip to Texas for Final Four
DALLAS – Kim Mulkey is returning to Texas for another Final Four, keenly aware that her LSU Tigers will play a short road trip from the school she made synonymous with women’s basketball.
Mulkey is the third coach to take multiple schools to the Final Four, doing so in her second season back in her home state of Louisiana after leading Baylor to the national semifinals four times in 21 seasons.
The Bears won three national championships under Mulkey, combined for 23 regular-season and tournament titles in the Big 12 Conference and made the NCAA Tournament in all but one of her seasons.
“You never spend 21 years of your life building a dynasty, and that’s what we did at Baylor. I think we can all agree with that,” Mulkey said Tuesday. “I still have a home there. My grandchildren are there. So my heart will always be there.”
Mulkey and the Tigers (33-2) will face first-time Final Four qualifier Virginia Tech (31-4) in the opener Friday night in Dallas, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Mulkey’s former college home in Waco. Defending champion South Carolina (36-0) plays Iowa (30-6) in the late game.
Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer took three teams to the Final Four, and Gary Blair made it that far with two.
Blair’s second was Texas A&M in 2011, when he won an Elite Eight showdown with Mulkey at American Airlines Center. Five years later in Dallas, the Bears again fell one win short of the Final Four.
Mulkey is back in Dallas with a new team after a 54-42 Elite Eight victory over Miami.
“There will be Baylor people sitting in my section that are heartbroken that I left,” Mulkey said. “I get it. Someday when I’m retired, maybe I’ll write another book and have more details, but I love Baylor University, the fans there, the Lady Bear fans there. But it was time. Timing is everything in life.”
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has fonder memories of the home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. The Gamecocks won their first national title there five years ago, beating Mississippi State after the Bulldogs ended Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak in the semifinals.
“Dallas, it will be etched in my memory forever,” said Staley, whose team – the No. 1 overall seed – earned a return trip with an 86-75 victory over Maryland. “I remember vividly the police escorts. I remember our fans. I remember UConn losing. That was a huge moment in college women’s basketball.”
Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks is a Dallas Cowboys fan, so he remembers seeing star quarterback Dak Prescott in the stands five years ago rooting for his alma mater, Mississippi State.
Prescott remembers the “huge moment” to which Staley referred. His reaction to Morgan William’s buzzer-beating game-winner in overtime made the rounds on social media five years ago.
“That was a surreal moment,” Brooks said. “But my surreal moment was last night.”
That’s when the No. 1 seed Hokies beat Ohio State 84-74 to reach their first Final Four in Brooks’ seventh season. Iowa, which beat Louisville 97-83 in the Elite Eight, has advanced this far for the first time since 1993, when Stringer became the first coach to lead multiple teams to the Final Four.
Stringer had done it with Cheyney in the inaugural tournament season of 1982, and after the Iowa trip, she went twice more with Rutgers in 2000 and 2007.
“She called me immediately after we beat Louisville,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “In fact, she was my first voice message I got that night. I know coach Stringer is behind us. I haven’t been able to get back to her yet, but I will soon.”
Mulkey’s Bears were one of the top seeds in 2017, hoping to chase a title just up the road from their Waco campus. Mississippi State beat Baylor in overtime in the Elite Eight before the OT thriller against UConn.
The Tigers are this deep in the tournament for the first time since the last of five consecutive Final Four appearances in 2008, all of which ended in the semifinals.
Mulkey was asked if she felt the burden of living up to those glory years.
“We’ve already done that,” said Mulkey, who has now reached the NCAA Tournament in 19 consecutive seasons as a coach. “Winning a national championship will only put an exclamation mark on it. We have exceeded probably what anybody could just realistically say was possible this quickly.”