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Winners and Losers of the Final Four

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark became a March Madness legend, while San Diego State gave us the first true buzzer-beater of the men’s NCAA tournament. Now that the championship game matchups are set, here are the winners and losers from the Final Four.

AP Photo/Ringer illustration

Who shined the most in this round of March Madness? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of winners and losers.

Winner: Caitlin Clark, Again. (Again!)

Caitlin Clark keeps doing it. The stage is getting bigger. She keeps doing it. The opponents are getting better. She keeps doing it. The crowds are getting larger and the pressure is getting hotter. Yet Clark keeps doing it, and she is now one game away from completing one of the greatest individual runs in the history of college basketball.

A battle between the best player and the best team is supposed to be a mismatch. Togetherness is supposed to trump talent as five should be stronger than one. But when Iowa’s Clark, the AP National Player of the Year, went head-to-head with top-ranked, undefeated, reigning national champion South Carolina Friday night, she did the same thing she does every time she takes the floor: She buried the Gamecocks with a second-straight 41-point performance to earn Iowa a spot in the national championship game.

South Carolina is a near-perfect basketball team—until Friday night, their record was literally perfect. The Gamecocks are defensive menaces: they ranked first in Division I in blocked shots per game, second in rebounds, and fourth in points allowed per game. They have Aliyah Boston, the back-to-back national Defensive Player of the Year. Facing them is like staring into the mouth of a shark, with its row after row of teeth. No opposing player had scored more than 25 points against them this year. Nobody had scored 40 points against them since 1995.

And yet in the Final Four on Friday, Clark played exactly the same game she’d played against much worse opponents, drilling 3s, dropping perfect passes for assists, and faking South Carolina defenders out of their shoes. In many ways, South Carolina was actually pretty dominant, outrebounding a smaller Iowa squad 49-25—and Clark’s offensive brilliance still powered the Hawkeyes to a win.

Clark finished with 41 points, the most by any player in a women’s Final Four game ever. A quarter of South Carolina’s opponents didn’t even score 41 points as a team this season. After recording the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA tournament history on Sunday, Clark became the first player ever with back-to-back 40-point NCAA tournament games. She is 16 points and four 3s from the all-time NCAA tournament records—and she has 16 points and four 3s in basically every game she plays.

Clark and the Hawkeyes will face LSU in the national championship game on Sunday, and surely LSU’s coaches and players have spent the last 48 hours trying to solve the Caitlin Clark problem. The teams that defend her too closely wind up allowing Clark to record 15 or more assists; the teams that don’t devote their entire defensive gameplan to Clark alone wind up on the wrong side of 40-plus points. What will LSU do? So far, nobody—including the best defensive team in college basketball—has found the answer. Clark has already become a March Madness legend; one more performance will make her a champion.

Loser: South Carolina’s Shooting

The most exciting part of Clark’s game is her belief that she can hit all of the ridiculous shots she attempts; pulling up from 40 feet when a 35-foot shot is also available is not only fun for us to watch, but to Clark, it’s actually a rational basketball decision. Friday night she displayed an equally presumptuous and thrilling trait: her total disbelief that her South Carolina opponents could hit wide-open 23-footers.

On this first-half possession, Clark was pooh-poohing the shooting ability of Raven Johnson, the top point guard in the country in the 2021 recruiting class and a member of the crowded SEC all-freshman team. But Johnson had only hit 11 3s all season before Friday night’s Final Four game against Iowa. So it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision by Clark to ignore Johnson’s shot, but rather a strategic call to exploit the only weakness South Carolina had. The Hawkeyes spent all night packing the paint, gambling that the best team in the sport couldn’t hit an open jumper. The bet cashed, and Iowa will play for the national championship while South Carolina heads home wondering how its game plan failed.

The Gamecocks philosophically rebuke the 3-pointer as a concept, ranking 332nd out of 363 Division I teams in 3-point attempts per game. Clark made 132 3s this year; South Carolina hit 163 as a team. Why would South Carolina even try to shoot 3s? The Gamecocks win their games in the paint, and were ranked first in points per possession on offense and second in points per possession allowed on defense, which works out to winning their average game by about 30 points.

Despite Clark clowning Johnson in that viral vid, Johnson delivered, shooting 3-for-6 from deep—her first time hitting three 3s in a game all season. But her teammates went 1-for-14 from beyond the arc, many of them missing open looks. South Carolina even gave first-half minutes to deep bench reserve Olivia Thompson, a human victory cigar-type walk-on who rarely plays in meaningful moments and when she does play, only heaves 3-point attempts. Putting her into the game so early was a choice that smelled of panic. Thompson airballed a 3 on her first possession and spent the whole second half on the bench.

South Carolina is a better shooting team than they showed on Friday night—their season average is 31 percent, and they shot 4-for-20 against the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s strategy shouldn’t have been so effective. But Iowa’s lack of pressure seemed to put pressure on South Carolina, and confronted with nothing but the Hawkeyes’ skepticism, the Gamecocks cracked. “It’s definitely harder to shoot when you’re that wide open,” Iowa’s Kate Martin told Sports Illustrated. “You’ve naturally got more time to think.” The Gamecocks only had one weakness; it’s a sha​​me it had to be one of the most important parts of basketball.

Winner: Aztecs

Losing on an NCAA tournament buzzer-beater must feel like having your heart ripped out—one second, your team is full of life, with hopes and dreams and the potential for glory, and the next it’s all over. This is why it’s a bad idea to play against a team called the Aztecs. Ripping out hearts is sorta their thing!

Some buzzer-beaters have beautiful play designs. SDSU’s killer was chaos. Trailing Florida Atlantic by one with 30 seconds left, the Aztecs had subbed out both their leading scorer, Matt Bradley, and Darrion Trammell, the guy they trusted with the ball in the closing seconds of their Elite Eight win over Creighton, in favor of better defenders. That plan worked, as SDSU got a stop and got the ball. It would’ve made sense for head coach Brian Dutcher to call a timeout and get his best scorers back in, but nope! He joked after the game that he was out of plays. (It’s possible he wasn’t joking.) The only guard on the court for the final possession was Lamont Butler, who found nothing but perfect transition defense from FAU. He drove baseline and was cut off, coming millimeters away from stepping out of bounds. (MILLIMETERS.) He looked up at the clock, saw it was running out and that he had nowhere to go and that none of his teammates were open or setting screens and that he wasn’t gonna be able to shake his defender but he still had to do somethi—

Dagger. Chest. Heart in the air. Aztecs win.

This was the first true buzzer-beater of the men’s NCAA tourney—Gonzaga’s game-winner to beat UCLA came with a couple of ticks left—and the first buzzer-beater which flipped a Final Four game from a loss to a win. (Nope, not that one. Not that one either.) Last week San Diego State beat Creighton on a controversial foul call and a free throw with one second remaining. And Saturday night, San Diego State became the first team ever to win back-to-back Elite Eight and Final Four games by exactly one point—all for you, Huitzilopochtli!

But a good heart-ripping lasts for more than a second. The build-up is key. Florida Atlantic led San Diego State by 14 in the second half on Saturday night. Their spot in the title game seemed secure once they built such a lead on an SDSU team whose strength is its defense. The Aztecs are not built for comeback victories; sometimes they struggled to score a point a minute—and now needed to make up 14 points in 14 minutes. It seemed like FAU was going to do it: One of the least likely schools ever to make the Final Four was going to play for a national title. I started daydreaming: Florida Atlantic, national champs. Which type of sports movie would they make—a serious one with a Ben Affleck-type as the head coach or a jokey one with a Kevin James-type? My heart started beating faster. Nice! The still-beating ones are better!

But then the Aztecs hit four of their next five 3-point attempts and got fouled while shooting a 3. They cut FAU’s lead from 14 to two in just five minutes. They shot 19 free throws in the second half, and somehow managed to grab offensive rebounds on four free throw misses. But they didn’t take the lead until the clock had expired.

Many of the ancient Aztecs’ sacrificial victims were captured in ceremonial wars specifically fought with certain rules for the purpose of taking captives. They may have forced the losers to participate in rigged ball games of which the losers were sacrificed. (Ask Creighton or FAU fans if they feel the modern-day ball games are also rigged.) Their warriors were skilled enough that they could have simply killed their opponents on the field of battle—but they chose to do the heart-ripping. It’s a bad way to go—but at least people will talk about it for centuries.

Loser: Anybody That Has to Play UConn

It’s been an astonishingly thrilling wrap-up to March Madness. Every game seems to come down to the final possession or have a huge second-half comeback or both— that is, every game not featuring the UConn Huskies. UConn led Miami by as much as 20 in their Final Four win on Saturday; they never trailed. Only Saint Mary’s has led the Huskies in the second half of a game in this tournament, and that was a one-point lead with 15 minutes to go that lasted 38 seconds. Normally Huskies don’t win by this much unless it’s the Iditarod. (No buzzer-beaters there.)

I don’t know why UConn is the only program to regularly come out of nowhere to win championships. But I do know this year’s title would be different from past out-of-nowhere UConn titles: The 2011 Huskies got to the championship game after back-to-back missed buzzer-beating 3-point attempts by Arizona and Kentucky; the 2014 team needed overtime to beat Saint Joseph’s in the first round. Neither finished the season ranked inside the top 10 on Kenpom despite winning the title. This year’s team now has the highest Kenpom rating by a huge margin and none of its games have been close.

The Huskies are 8-point favorites in the national title game against SDSU; if the Aztecs cover, it will be the first game of the tourney which UConn has not won by double-digits. It’ll be a battle between a team that keeps winning in the last second and one that keeps winning about 30 seconds after tip-off.

Winner: Miami’s Managers

Saturday night saw the most egregious college basketball shoe failure since Zion Williamson’s Nike burst open and wiped out half his college career. Miami’s Nijel Pack had some sort of shoe malfunction, and needed a new pair as the Hurricanes tried to put together a second-half comeback against UConn. (If only Pack had gotten NIL money from a shoe company, like in the good old days, instead of… a company that is “disrupting the healthcare reimbursement system.”)

College hoopers don’t bring multiple pairs of shoes with them. I think a teammate gave Pack a pair of shoes on the bench—you can see Pack looking in the tongue of the shoe to see what size it is and signifying he needed a change.

Unfortunately for Pack, the Final Four was held at NRG Stadium, Houston’s NFL stadium, meaning the locker room was significantly farther from the court than a typical college basketball locker room would be. So getting new shoes required a team of multiple managers sprinting hundreds of yards to get Pack a new pair ASAP. (Either multiple managers or one manager who was visibly transformed by his arduous journey.)

It was a spotlight moment for managers. College sports run on the backs of these students who get little more in return for their work than cool seats at games. (Some schools pay their managers, but I think that’s rare.) They always put in ridiculous over-the-top effort—but this time cameras were broadcasting it to millions of people.

Winner: The Athlete Anthem

The NCAA has a neat tradition at the Final Four: Instead of hiring a famous country musician or Broadway performer to belt out the national anthem, they assemble an impromptu a capella group featuring one college athlete from each of the four colleges participating—a Basketballshop Quartet. It’s a tradition that dates back to 2015, when a Wisconsin basketball player helped sing the anthem and then played in the game. It’s part of the way the NCAA likes to show that so many college athletes are Going To Go Pro In Something Other Than Sports.

But it’s not necessarily going to lead to the best anthem performances. You’re taking college athletes who sing as a hobby and asking them to learn how to harmonize with each other on an impossibly difficult song within a week. Perhaps that’s why they started off the anthem by giving the ball to the dude from Miami and clearing out so he could go iso from the top of the Francis Scott Key:

That’s sprinter Caleb Chevis, who was on the track last Saturday and also records tracks. And everybody else… don’t be too harsh on them! Remember: Most student-athlete performers Go Pro In Something Other Than Singing.

Winner: Some Undefeated Women’s Teams

The NCAA made a neat change this year: All three divisions of women’s hoops played their title games at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, giving lower-level squads who normally play in cramped gyms with just a few rows of bleachers an opportunity to play in a big-time NBA arena.

Ohio’s Ashland Eagles won the Division II title, completing a perfect 38-0 season:

And the Division III champs are Kentucky’s Transylvania Pioneers (the mascot is a bat, although I wish they’d gone with an actual vampire), who finished the year 33-0:

With South Carolina’s loss in the Final Four, only Division I won’t have an undefeated women’s champ. It feels like the only downside to playing these games in the same venue is the confetti clean-up crew has to snap into action quickly.

Winner: San Diego Baseball Fans

I was raised on college basketball, a frenzied free-for-all of a sport where everyone understands their season will eventually come down to a single moment. So that makes it hard for me to understand why anyone would watch Game 2 of a 162-game baseball season. But Saturday brought a pretty solid reason: they might show the hoops game on the big screen! San Diego fans checking out the Padres got to celebrate together when Butler’s big shot went through:

On the other side of the country, the Marlins appear to have held a significantly sadder viewing session for their South Florida hoops teams—thankfully no videos of upset FAU fans from there.