Caitlin Clark [608x342]
Caitlin Clark [608x342] (Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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We have our Final Four.

A blockbuster Monday gave us a rematch of the 2023 women's NCAA national title game between LSU and Iowa -- except this time Caitlin Clark & Co. came out ahead in Albany, New York. Meanwhile in Portland, Oregon, Paige Bueckers and the limited roster of UConn outlasted freshman JuJu Watkins and top-seeded USC, to return to the national semifinals a year after the Huskies' NCAA-record streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances was snapped.

The record-breaking night began with LSU-Iowa, a back-and-forth affair in the first half before the No. 1 seed Hawkeyes pulled away in the third quarter. On the back of a 41-point, 12-assist night from Clark, the Hawkeyes defeated the 3-seed Tigers 94-87 and are in their second straight Final Four after a 30-year drought. 

Then, Watkins passed Tina Hutchinson for the most points scored by a freshman in Division I history -- though that wasn't enough to hold off Geno Auriemma's squad.  

Iowa and UConn, who play each other Friday in Cleveland, join the nation's only undefeated college basketball team, men's or women's, in the Final Four. No. 1 seed South Carolina (36-0) fended off No. 3 seed Oregon State on Sunday to earn its fourth consecutive trip to the national semifinals with a 70-58 win in Region 1 in Albany.

The Gamecocks will face NC State after the No. 3 seed Wolfpack upset No. 1 seed Texas in Portland 76-66. It will be NC State's first trip to the Final Four in 26 years (1998).

Here's what we learned in each Elite Eight game and how we reseeded the field ahead of the regional finals.

Live projections: ESPN's March Madness forecast

 

Region 2 in Albany: No. 1 seed Iowa 94, No. 3 seed LSU 87

If Caitlin Clark plays this well, is a national title in Iowa's future? When the game's best player plays at or near her best, it sometimes doesn't matter what the opponent does. Clark made a 3-pointer to start the scoring 14 seconds into the game, and it set the stage for a memorable night. She finished with 41 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds and nine 3-pointers, tying an NCAA tournament single-game record. Clark made nine 3-pointers only twice this season, and that's more than she made in Iowa's past two games combined.

Sometimes the analysis isn't that difficult. Clark was outstanding. Her shooting and playmaking were the difference in the game. It's that simple. Iowa was outrebounded by the bigger Tigers. Clark more than negated that deficit. Overall she was 13-of-29 from the field in 40 minutes.

A high-paced, high-energy first half ended in a 45-45 tie. The third quarter was when the Hawkeyes separated themselves. Clark nearly outscored LSU all by herself with 12 points, and Iowa won the quarter 24-13. The Tigers quickly got the deficit down to six early in the fourth but never got any closer. Every time they might have been on the verge of a run, a bucket by Clark or an assist from her to Kate Martin (21 points) or Sydney Affolter (16 points), Iowa's other two double-figure scorers, kept the game out of reach.

In the process of sending Iowa back to the Final Four, Clark set the record for most 3-pointers in a Division I career, the NCAA tournament record for career 3-pointers and the NCAA tournament career assist record.

What it means for Iowa: It took the Hawkeyes 30 years to get back to the Final Four. Now they have been to two straight. That is the power and greatness of Clark. The talk of Selection Sunday was that Iowa, the second-best team on the committee's board, got the toughest road to the Final Four; that having to meet LSU in a rematch of last year's title game before Cleveland was an unfair draw. The Hawkeyes made that conversation irrelevant.

Perhaps the most highly anticipated women's basketball game ever delivered from the start, and Clark was the main reason.

What it means for LSU: Given the expectations around a defending national champion adding the two highest-profile transfers and returning the core of its roster, losing in the Elite Eight has to go down as a disappointment. LSU was the unanimous preseason No. 1 but after losing its season opener to Colorado was never the country's best team.

The Tigers did overcome injuries and a four-game absence from Angel Reese in November to finish second in the SEC, but this was not the season most in Baton Rouge envisioned. LSU never figured out how to defend Clark on Monday night and could not take advantage of its huge rebounding advantage -- 23-6 on the offensive glass -- with only 14 second-chance points.

Reese, who had 17 points and 20 rebounds but was just 1-of-10 from the field in the second half, now has to decide whether to enter the WNBA draft or return for her fifth year of college. That choice will dictate LSU's preseason status. This NCAA tournament made a star of Flau'jae Johnson. She led the Tigers in scoring for a second straight game with 23 points. Johnson joins Aneesah Morrow and Mikaylah Williams to form a solid core, regardless of Reese's decision. -- Charlie Creme

Region 3 in Portland: No. 3 seed UConn 80, No. 1 seed USC 73

How did UConn hold off USC to reach a 23rd Final Four? When the Trojans' McKenzie Forbes knocked down a 3-pointer with 7:32 to play, tying the score at 59 and erasing a Huskies lead as large as 12 late in the third quarter, it looked like UConn might finally be running out of gas.

Foul trouble had already forced Geno Auriemma deeper into his bench than he'd gone since the opening game of the NCAA tournament, with starters KK Arnold and Nika Muhl both at four fouls. And his other players, including star Paige Bueckers, had logged heavy minutes throughout the Huskies' run.

After an Auriemma timeout, UConn got back-to-back buckets to retake the lead. And over the final five minutes and change, Bueckers -- eager to return to the Final Four after missing last season because of an ACL tear -- took over, scoring nine points in less than three and a half minutes as UConn rebuilt a double-digit lead.

Although USC star JuJu Watkins scored 29 points -- becoming the all-time leading scorer among freshmen in NCAA Division I in the process -- Bueckers was the best player on the court. According to ESPN Stats & Information, her third game out of four this tournament with at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists surpassed Candice Wiggins of Stanford in 2008 for the most in one March Madness since 2000.

What it means for UConn: A return to the Final Four after a one-year absence, which qualifies as notable in Storrs. The Huskies overcame season-ending injuries to starters Caroline Ducharme and Azzi Fudd and key reserve Aubrey Griffin, relying on a tight rotation of as few as six players en route to Cleveland.

Even as the lower seed from across the country, UConn was favored Monday. That likely won't be the case in the Final Four against Iowa, a rematch of the 2021 Sweet 16, when both Bueckers and Caitlin Clark were freshmen. The Huskies won that game 92-72, holding Clark to 21 points on 7-of-21 shooting.

Bueckers was injured when the teams last played in November 2022 in Portland, making this their first head-to-head matchup as full-fledged veteran superstars -- and their last, until Bueckers heads to the WNBA. Coming off a loss in last year's national championship game and a thrilling win Monday over LSU, the battle-tested Hawkeyes are far more prepared for this March meeting.

What it means for USC: The end of a historic first season for Watkins, who passed Tina Hutchinson of San Diego State and became the first freshman in NCAA Division I to have more than 900 points in a season, finishing with 920.

In returning to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1994, the Trojans only increased the anticipation for what they can accomplish as Watkins matures and continues to develop. USC will have to replace three senior starters, the trio of Ivy League transfers (Kaitlyn Davis, second-leading scorer McKenzie Forbes and Kayla Padilla) that added experience to this year's squad.

Next season's roster, however, might be even more talented. To Watkins and talented center Rayah Marshall, the Trojans add the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, featuring six players in the ESPN top 100. And between the chance to play with Watkins, strong academics and L.A. weather, USC will surely be an attractive destination for veteran transfers. -- Kevin Pelton

Region 4 in Portland: No. 3 seed NC State 76, No. 1 Texas 66

How did NC State become the first team to knock off a No. 1 seed in this year's tournament? The Wolfpack started Sunday's game running -- literally. NC State outscored Texas 16-0 in transition during the first half, according to ESPN Stats & Information, opening up the largest lead anyone had taken against the Longhorns all season -- as big as 18 points late in the second quarter.

The Wolfpack's star duo of Aziaha James and Saniya Rivers led the way, scoring or assisting on all but two of NC State's fast-break points. And when Texas was able to keep the Wolfpack out of transition, James' shooting was a difference-maker in the half court. Her seven 3-pointers were both a career high and a record for an NC State player in a women's NCAA tournament game. James outscored Texas 21-3 from 3-point range all by herself.

By switching to a zone late in the third quarter, the Longhorns were able to disrupt the Wolfpack's rhythm. Texas managed to get the deficit down to six with 1:06 remaining in the period, but James followed with a 3 and the Longhorns never again closed to within a two-score margin.

In the end, Texas couldn't keep up with an NC State team that got 27 points from James, 16 from center River Baldwin and had three other players in double figures. The Longhorns dropped to 0-3 this season when allowing at least 76 points, compared with 33-2 when holding opponents below that mark.

The result: Two years after a heartbreaking double-OT loss to UConn in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the Elite Eight, the Wolfpack and coach Wes Moore are headed to the Final Four for the first time since the legendary late Kay Yow led them there 26 years ago.

What it means for NC State: After pulling off a pair of upsets in the regionals, the Wolfpack face even longer odds in their first trip to the Final Four since 1998. They'll have to take down undefeated No. 1 overall seed South Carolina on Friday to keep this run rolling into the championship game in a week.

There's reason for NC State to believe it can follow in the footsteps of Iowa a year ago by knocking off an undefeated Gamecocks team in the national semifinals. Success in the NCAA tournament is driven by strong guard play, and no backcourt in the country is hotter than the Wolfpack's duo of James and Rivers.

Although none of NC State's current players was on the roster then, Moore did direct the Wolfpack's upset of a South Carolina team that would reach the Final Four on the road back in December 2020. NC State played close against the Gamecocks again the following year, losing 66-57 in November 2021 at home.

One key factor to watch on Friday: Whether Baldwin can avoid foul trouble against South Carolina's 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso. Although Baldwin did not foul out of a game this season, her minutes were limited by four fouls in both games during the regionals. NC State survived that but might not have the same success facing the Gamecocks.

What it means for Texas: All eyes will be on the return of point guard Rori Harmon from an ACL tear suffered in late December. Aaliyah Moore managed to come back from her own ACL tear on Nov. 24, having missed the season's first five games. A similar timetable would put Harmon back on the court before the start of conference play -- now in the SEC.

As well as the Longhorns compensated for Harmon's loss, winning their final Big 12 tournament and earning a No. 1 seed, they're undoubtedly better with the nation's most complete two-way point guard running the offense and supplying defensive pressure. Harmon's return will shift Big 12 Player of the Year Madison Booker back to an off-ball role, giving Texas a big three on offense rounded out by forward Aaliyah Moore.

The Longhorns will lose an important starter in BYU transfer Shaylee Gonzales, but add a pair of recruits ranked in the espnW top 10. Thanks to those additions and Harmon's impending return, Vic Schaefer's squad will be favored to take the next step after three Elite Eight losses in the past four years. -- Kevin Pelton

Region 1 in Albany: No. 1 seed South Carolina 70, No. 3 seed Oregon State 58

Should South Carolina be concerned that it has struggled to close out its past two games? After nearly blowing a 22-point lead in the Sweet 16 to Indiana, South Carolina almost blew a 14-point lead to Oregon State. South Carolina even let Oregon State get within four with 3:40 to play before ending on an 8-0 run. South Carolina took questionable jump shots and struggled to get the ball inside to Kamilla Cardoso -- who had a big size advantage on Raegan Beers and an opportunity to get Beers to foul out of the game.

The good news for South Carolina is it dominated completely in the paint, even without feeding Cardoso, outscoring Oregon State 44-14. But from the perimeter? South Carolina attempted 78 shots, 23 more than Oregon State. Yet South Carolina made only six more field goals, shooting 33%. On the other end, the Gamecocks have struggled two games in a row to defend the 3-point shot -- uncharacteristic for a team known for its defensive prowess. Indiana hit 13 3-pointers, while Oregon State hit eight.

If South Carolina looked invincible in the first two rounds, back-to-back shaky second-half performances should be cause for concern considering how much higher the stakes will be in Cleveland.

What it means for South Carolina: South Carolina becomes the seventh program to reach the Final Four in four straight seasons, joining UConn, Stanford, Notre Dame, LSU, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech). No matter who else advances, the No. 1 ranked Gamecocks will head into the Final Four as the heavy favorites to win their third national championship. Not only do they move to 36-0 this season -- the only undefeated team left in basketball -- they are a Division I best 72-1 since the start of last season. Of course, the only loss came to Iowa in last year's national semifinals -- a loss that the returning South Carolina players have not forgotten. Their quest to finish this season with a title has been made clear.

What it means for Oregon State: Oregon State was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 preseason poll and ended up making it to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2018. No matter the disappointment the Beavers feel from the loss, only one team in school history has gone further. This team has no seniors, but the big question is whether coach Scott Rueck will be able to keep everyone together for next season as Oregon State moves into the West Coast Conference as a result of realignment. -- Andrea Adelson