Semi-Finals Pregame Media Conference
LISA BLUDER: Well, we are extremely excited to represent Hawkeye nation here at the women’s Final Four. We know we have an incredible challenge ahead of us, but at the same time, everybody loves an underdog. So hopefully a lot of people will be cheering for us.
I’ve been coming to the Final Four for a long, long time, but my seats are finally going to be pretty good tonight. So I’m excited about that.
Excited also about Caitlin obviously being named the AP Player of the Year today. One of my assistants, Coach Jan Jensen, will also be getting the Assistant Coach of the Year Award. So a lot of great things happening.
I’m just trying to convince my team 40 minutes of basketball and a lifetime of memories, and that’s all we have to focus on.
Q. Caitlin, I know you’re a huge fan of basketball watching and obviously playing it. When you see the ticket prices for the women’s tournament is more than the men’s right now and there seems to be a much bigger buzz for this tournament, your guys’ game, the other game, what does it mean to you to know you’re part of a movement that seems to be finally blossoming for women’s basketball?
CAITLIN CLARK: I think it’s pretty incredible. I think it’s starting to get the viewership, the attention, things like that that it deserves. And when people really turn on the TV or sit in the seat, they understand how good the product is and how much fun it is to watch.
I’ve loved the game since I was a young girl. I’ve always seen how good it is. And I really think we have so many good players in our game right now, whether it’s WNBA or at the college level, and people are really starting to figure that out.
So I really think sky’s the limit. I don’t know if ticket prices are as indicative because ours is in an actual basketball arena, and they’re playing in a football stadium. I don’t know how much that affects it. But I think it shows the demand that people want to be here and be in the arena that seats 20,000 people.
More than anything, I’m just lucky and we’re just lucky to get to play on a stage in front of so many people that love the game and want to watch our game.
Q. Caitlin, following up on that, a lot to talk about, this game in particular, and there are people who are mad it’s not a championship game, that it’s a semifinal game. What does that say about the women’s game and the fact that you do have people that are that passionate that they’re arguing and mad about that? And for Gabbie and Monika, do you have a favorite memory of Caitlin like shooting or a specific game she did something very Caitlin-like?
CAITLIN CLARK: I think it’s really good for our game. I think, even though the conversation is about Player of the Year, conversations about Coach of the Year, conversations about who’s playing on the floor, I think that’s really good.
I think people need to realize how many tremendous players there are in our game, how many tremendous coaches there are in our game. We’re lucky enough, we play in the Big Ten. I believe that’s the best conference in America. We’ve been lucky enough to play against the best players, Diamond Miller, Mackenzie Holmes. You can make a list of really talented players we’ve played.
We’ve played against National Coach of the Year. As some people have said. Obviously Coach Staley won the Naismith award yesterday. And I saw Coach Moren was named the AP Coach of the Year today. Congratulations to her as well. I thought Indiana had a tremendous year.
I think just finding confidence in that. We’ve gone up against some really tremendous teams. Obviously we know South Carolina is taller than anybody we’ve ever played. They haven’t lost a game all season. We’re just going to be us and believe that we can win, and that’s all you can do.
We’re going to give it everything we have, and we’ve enjoyed every second in Dallas, and we want to be playing two more basketball games.
MONIKA CZINANO: And I think, thinking about like a game where Caitlin is Caitlin, I feel like it’s weird for us because we see her do it all the time at practice, so it’s like a treat when you guys get to see it.
But I think Michigan at Michigan last year, just seeing her single-handedly bringing us back into that game when we were down. We didn’t win it, but we got really close with a limited amount of people. I think that’s when I was like, oh, great, everybody gets to see what I see every single day. So yeah.
GABBIE MARSHALL: I think my favorite is at home — I think we were playing Iowa State. She had come down and hit three logo shots in a row. I remember looking over at Sue, like what is going on? This girl’s crazy. I think it was Ohio State. I’m not really sure who we were playing, but that was crazy. But I was not surprised.
Q. You talk about the difference in the sizes between the men’s and the women’s, where they’ll be staged. Because this feels like a moment, because this is like Aliyah Boston, the defending champions and their team, versus you and your team, two projected No. 1 picks in the WNBA Draft, is this maybe the perfect stage to maybe show the NCAA that the women’s Final Four can be, should be staged in the same kind of event space as the men’s?
CAITLIN CLARK: I’m lucky I’m not the one who has to make those decisions. Hopefully I’m the one that gets to play in the Final Four. Yeah, there’s very high demand for this basketball game, and even Virginia Tech versus LSU.
A lot of teams that are new to the Final Four, obviously us and Virginia Tech haven’t been here in a while. I think more than anything we’re just really grateful. We could be playing in a high school gym, and I would be just as happy to get to play in the Final Four.
I don’t really care where it’s played. I’m happy we get to play in the Mavs stadium. I think that’s pretty cool. It might almost be cooler to play in a basketball arena than a football arena too. Maybe it would be easier to shoot. I don’t know.
I don’t think it really bothers me, but I think it definitely shows how the game is growing and how high of a demand there is for people to want to get in the door of this game. A lot of people are going to turn it on on TV too if they can’t make it down to Dallas. I think we’re just grateful more than anything.
Q. You two carry the offensive load for this team, but over the last week, I’d say, Gabbie and Makenna have been playing some of the best basketball they’ve played all season. How does that open up the floor for you guys when they’re hitting all their shots?
MONIKA CZINANO: It’s tremendous. People have to really pick their poison. They can really clog the paint. And then we have Gabbie and Makenna and Caitlin who are really doing their thing out there. Or they can choose to respect them for their game and leave me more open.
Just seeing the work they’ve put in all throughout their career. We’ve played 90-plus games together. Seeing them in the gym all the time, seeing their shots go down in a game, it makes me happier to see their shots go in than my own truly.
It’s so great for our team. It really opens everything up for me individually, but we’re just peaking at the right time.
Q. Caitlin, you’ve gotten as much attention as anyone in the country this year, deservedly so. Have you been able to relish it? Do you enjoy it? Has it gotten old or overwhelming, or how have you kept it from not being too much?
CAITLIN CLARK: I think I’m lucky enough to have a support system around me that kind of keeps me humble, keeps me grounded. I get picked on the most more than anybody on our team.
But I’m not really on social media that much, and I think that helps a lot too. I’ve just tried to enjoy every single second. This is the most fun time I’ve had playing basketball this year, and that’s why the product has been so good for myself and this team because I’m just going out there and having fun and enjoying what I do.
It’s not to win an award. It’s not for our team to hoist trophies. I think that has all come because we’ve played with the same love of the game we’ve had since we were young girls.
I’m going to enjoy every single second of it. I’ve tried to enjoy every single second of it. I think it’s hard for it to set in right now because I’m so focused on continuing to play basketball and continuing to win basketball games. I think, after this season is over, I’ll be able to reflect and really enjoy everything this team has been able to do together.
We’ve had two really good seniors that are going to be leaving us. So I’m just trying to enjoy every second I get with them because it’s been three really special years of us getting to play together as well.
Q. For Gabbie and Monika, what was the experience like yesterday to be able to support Caitlin at the Naismith? But also you have South Carolina and their team right there supporting their candidate?
GABBIE MARSHALL: It was really special to get to be there and support her. There’s no one more deserving of that award. The work she puts in day in and day out, it’s unreal. I think the passion and competitiveness and joy she plays with is what makes people really want to watch her.
I think people are seeing that and just seeing what she’s doing day in and day out and the performances she’s putting on, and the impact she’s had on this team. She kind of put us on the map. There’s no one more deserving of that award. I’m just glad we were all allowed to be there.
Whoever else was there, we were just worried about Caitlin, so yeah.
MONIKA CZINANO: Retweet (laughter).
Q. Caitlin, when did you first start shooting logo threes? For Gabbie and Monika, what’s your first memory of seeing her do that, and what’s it like to play with someone who can do that?
CAITLIN CLARK: Honestly, I don’t know if I did it in high school as much. Coach Bluder watched me a lot in high school. Maybe she can comment on that too. I usually played in a smaller court in high school, so I didn’t have as much room to work.
I think it’s kind of come with harder defenses, spacing them out more, getting stronger in the weight room. My shot mechanics don’t change when I back up. That’s a shot I go in practice all the time. When I’m in the gym working on my game and getting shots up, I’m shooting shots from back there. It’s not like I get in the game and launching, and they somehow go in. Sometimes it might seem like that.
But those are shots I practice, and I shoot them in practice too. I think it all just stems from the confidence of the work I’ve put in. Honestly I would say it’s more so come with being in college more than anything.
MONIKA CZINANO: I feel like in like summer scrimmages, you kind of play a little freer basketball with no one really watching you. Just you and your team having fun. I think I remember seeing the progression of slowly she would keep shooting them from further back, and they would keep going in.
I’ve seen her in the gym and I’ve walked in, oh, she’s shooting at the logo. Oh, she must be having fun. No, she’s on the gun shooting from there. It was really special to see that in practice and scrimmaging against her for the first time. I knew she was going to be a very special basketball player.
GABBIE MARSHALL: Yeah, she’s been doing that since her first college game.
Q. For you, Monika, obviously South Carolina is really physical in the paint. They crash the boards. Score a lot of points there. What can you say about them, and what have you been doing to prepare for this matchup?
MONIKA CZINANO: They have great inside presence. I feel like they always have. Both of their bigs are so good. The fact that they bring that size and presence off the bench is kind of unreal.
I think that I’m really lucky to have played in the Big Ten, and even for our journey on this, playing Georgia, playing Colorado, who also have very big, strong, physical posts, it’s kind of prepared me the best way it could for this game.
But I truly think at this point of my career, having played for five years, I’ve played against so many different style post players, so many different physicality levels, that I’m really excited for this opportunity. I think it’s going to be really fun. I love going against really great centers. I think it makes me better, it makes everybody better.
More than anything, I’m just very excited to play the game.
Q. Starting with you, Caitlin, this game has kind of been billed as you against Aliyah a little bit because of the Player of the Year debate. Can you just talk about the role that your teammates around you are going to have tomorrow to try to pull off the upset? And then for Monika and Gabbie, what do you guys kind of have to do to be able to make sure you are contributing at your highest level in the biggest game of the season to make sure you can help Caitlin as well? Because you guys always talk about a balance throughout is when you’re at your best.
CAITLIN CLARK: It’s going to be Iowa versus South Carolina, and that’s who’s going to win the game. It’s not going to be one player who’s going to win the game. I’m lucky enough to have four really good teammates on the court with me at the same time. I love playing a team sport. I don’t think I would like to play an individual sport.
If the game’s not going your way, you’re lucky enough to have teammates you can always rely on and lean back on. I think we’re lucky enough where we’ve built a culture and a program where we always have each other’s backs. I feel like Gabbie and Makenna and Kate are shooting the ball really well, and that can pose some problems.
They’re going to be all up on us playing really good defense, and that’s what they hang their hat on. They’re really good at it.
So just relying on one another. There’s going to be ups and downs in the game, and that’s how basketball is played. We have five really good players on the floor at the same time, and we’re going to have to use one another, and everybody’s going to have to contribute.
GABBIE MARSHALL: Just going in there knowing it’s going to be a battle, knowing it’s going to be physical. Being able to value the ball and know we have to take outside shots and help Caitlin.
One thing that never wavers for me in the game is my defense. It’s one thing I can always control, my effort and energy on defense, and I think that’s going to be huge in this upcoming game.
MONIKA CZINANO: We’ve gotten this far by just being ourselves, stepping into our roles, and just doing what we know how to do. We don’t have to change this for this game. We have the No. 1 offense, so just kind of ride with that and keep that going. We’ve gotten where we are by being who we are, so we just need to keep doing that.
Q. For Monika and Gabbie, would you agree that Caitlin is the most picked-on player on your team? If so, why?
MONIKA CZINANO: Yes.
GABBIE MARSHALL: It’s just so easy too. She’s just so loud and like when she comes at you, you want to go right back. But she’s just goofy, silly, so it’s just easy. She takes jokes very well.
MONIKA CZINANO: She has one of the biggest personalities on our team, so it’s so easy to fire them right back at her. She gives them back too. Don’t get that twisted.
Q. I’m curious just as the game has grown, who you guys looked up to who were in the same seats that you guys are sitting in today and how they kind of helped you think about the game differently, how you want to be a part of the change moving forward.
GABBIE MARSHALL: I was just actually looking at my Snapchat memories, and I was at the games where Arike hit the two buzzer beaters, and Kobe was in the gym and everything, and I was with my AAU team. I was thinking about, wow, I want to be them one day.
Now I’m here. It’s so special. It still gives me the chills to think about how that was my dream. And now people are looking up to us, and they want to be us. I just think it’s such a special moment. It’s bigger than the game at that point.
So I think just soaking it all in and knowing that people are looking up to us, and we were once looking up to those girls. I think it’s just awesome to think about.
CAITLIN CLARK: I loved Maya Moore, she was always my favorite player growing up when she was with UConn and the Lynx. Obviously that’s the closest WNBA game to the state of Iowa, and that’s who I rooted for. That was the first WNBA game I went to. They were playing the Seattle storm, and I got to see Sue Bird too, which is pretty cool.
MONIKA CZINANO: I don’t think I can name a specific player. I watched a lot of Lynx. Being from Minnesota too, Lindsay Whalen was a god in Minnesota. I remember watching every single person and thinking how cool their lives were and how fun they were to watch. To be up here and be one of those people, it’s really a full circle moment.
Q. Actually, my question has a lot to do with what you were just talking about. I wondered how you envisioned appearing at the Final Four and then what it’s really been like for you.
MONIKA CZINANO: It’s been a dream come true truly. Being able to go to all these events that we’ve been able to. I mean, just being with my team for extra basketball too, getting the opportunity to hang out with them in Dallas, getting the opportunity to play another basketball game with them. It’s really surreal. It feels like the season, even best case scenario, is ending really soon. It doesn’t feel quite real.
Just the opportunity to be here with my team, that’s all I could have asked for.
CAITLIN CLARK: I agree. This is everything you kind of dream of since you were a little kid. My mom texted me last night, and she’s like I feel like I was kind of stuck in your dream that you wanted to do when you were seven years old. So it’s pretty special, and I’m just trying to enjoy every single second of it.
We’ve been lucky enough to be together for three years, and to go out kind of in this way and accomplish what we wanted to accomplish is pretty special. We believe while we’re here we can win two more basketball games, and that is certainly our goal.
Like Mon said, we just don’t want to not have to come to practice the next day. I don’t think a lot of people would say that, but we really enjoy being with each other, and that’s carried us a long way.
GABBIE MARSHALL: I feel the same as both of them.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, ladies.
Q. Two-part question. I know you said you got a text from Vivian right after you guys advanced. Have you talked to her since then, and has it also sunk in that Iowa’s here for the first time in 30 years and you obviously know the history of the program from your time there and before that, what it means to have Iowa back on this national stage?
LISA BLUDER: It wasn’t a text, it was a voice message, which tells you the age of both of us. Who leaves voice messages anymore? But I love voice messages because you can hear the enthusiasm in their voice versus reading it on a text, and she definitely had a lot of enthusiasm.
Her love for the Hawks is strong, and I’m thankful — you were talking about mentors, and for the players, Vivian was certainly one of mine. So I’m very thankful to have her support, as the last person that took this team to a Final Four. That really means a lot.
To take our team back here, sometimes as a coach, when you’re at some place for so long, it does get a little old. You’re like, well, it’s been since ’93 since they’ve been in the Final Four. So, yes, it feels good to be back here again, absolutely. But it’s always the people that you’re around.
To me, this group of women are special. That’s what makes the year special to me.
Q. You just had a couple players say they’re really glad they get to go to the Final Four because they get to continue to go to practice. To me, that’s amazing. What does that say about the environment you’ve created here?
LISA BLUDER: We love being around each other. We really do. We kind of joked about that. We came straight from Seattle. We didn’t go home. We’ve been on the road together for two weeks now, and we’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
If you didn’t like the people you were around, this would be a chore. It would not be much fun. But when you trust the people that you’re around, when you have respect for them, when you know they’re doing their job, it’s such a comforting feeling, and you don’t want it to end.
This has been a fun season for us, and so, yeah, we do not want it to end.
Q. Coaches tend to be — I’ll put this nicely — control freaks, whereas Caitlin seems like she needs a lot of freedom. I’m wondering when you realized that and what that has been like. Like the first time that she pulled up, whether it was in practice or a game, and took a logo shot. What was your response, and how has that process kind of worked itself out?
LISA BLUDER: Her freshman year, I definitely had some times I was pulling my hair out. There’s no doubt about it. Just she had to learn how to play with other players that were good players. In high school she had to do it all on her own. I remember going to her high school games, as she said, and kids yelling “overrated” to her from the stands. I just would love to see them today.
But honestly, she did test us her freshman year. So we had to learn — it was give and take. It wasn’t all controlling what she did because I think, when you try to stifle somebody like that, you’re ruining a little bit of the type of player they are. What she does on her own is special. I think, if you were trying to tell her exactly what a good shot is, because what a good shot for her is totally different than what a good shot for somebody else is. So she has a little separate set of rules, quite honestly, than other people because she can do things other people can’t do.
We had to get her to understand how to play within a system a little bit without putting out the fire of being Caitlin Clark.
Q. I have a question about scouting and game planning: What’s your preference in terms of do you like watching the most recent games of a team? Do you like watching them against teams that you think are similar to you? Do you like watching common opponents? And then how do you get that information to your players in a way that they can use it on the court?
LISA BLUDER: All of the above honestly. We watch recent games. We watch people that play a little bit more like us. And we have a common opponent in Maryland. We also have common opponents in Georgia, but Georgia plays so differently than us, that that wasn’t really a game we were going to focus on.
We’ve been watching film with our players now for a couple days and trying to get them as good a feel. Right now I think it’s like less practice and more mental, more film. You’re not going to get better at boxing out right now. I’m not going to go out in the gym and teach them a skill like that.
What we need to do is be as familiar as we can with our opponent, and that’s what makes it hard in the NCAA Tournament because you don’t know your opponent as well. When you’re going through the Big Ten, you’ve seen them year after year, same coach, same coaching styles, same players. You know those players so well. In the NCAA Tournament, you may only have a couple days to get ready for an opponent, which makes it a lot more difficult.
So a lot of film right now that we push to their iPads and they watch on their own and we watch together as well.
Q. I believe after the Elite Eight you said that Caitlin plays better against better opponents. So I’m curious what you’re expecting from her tomorrow.
LISA BLUDER: I honestly just want to take the pressure off of Caitlin. She just came in here and received all these awards this week. She knows a lot of eyes are going to be upon her, and I want everybody else to step up and help carry that weight for her because that’s a lot. That’s a lot for a 20-year-old.
So I’m just going to try to take the focus off of her as much as I can and put it on the rest of my team because they want to kind of help shoulder that.
Q. Wondering how the strength of the Big Ten this year compares to other years in the time that you’ve been at Iowa, and how the conference’s overall strength helped prepare you and your team for the tournament?
LISA BLUDER: There’s no doubt this was the best year for Women’s Big Ten basketball in a long, long time. We had three out of the eight in the Elite Eight. That’s almost like 40 percent from the Big Ten Conference. We have felt all year long that playing in the Big Ten prepared us.
Now, again, we haven’t played South Carolina yet, but has prepared us on this journey so far. And whatever team that we play, they tried something different.
Well, one of the great coaches we have in the Big Ten has probably tried it against us already. Some of the great athletes in the Big Ten have probably done that already to us.
I just think playing in such a strong conference as the Big Ten has helped prepare us for this NCAA journey because we’ve seen it all.
Q. Kind of a two-part question I asked Caitlin. This game has been built up as a Caitlin Clark versus Aliyah Boston just because of the National Player of the Year discussions. Does that feel like a slight to both teams just because both teams do have good players around them? Then second part, what do the players around Caitlin on your team have to do tomorrow to make sure that you guys have a chance to win?
LISA BLUDER: People compare Caitlin to Aliyah, and to me that’s apples to oranges. It makes no sense. They are completely different players. They are completely different positions. They’re both great at what they do, but what they do is different. So I don’t think you can compare the two of them.
They both contribute so much to their team’s success, but to me it’s not Caitlin versus Aliyah. It’s Iowa versus South Carolina, and we have to continue to remember that.
What we need to do to be successful is we have to make sure we box out. We have to make sure that other people are hitting threes and not just Caitlin.
Q. The women’s tournament has grown so much in the past few years, but what would you like to see the NCAA continue to invest in for the Final Four specifically so that it grows even more?
LISA BLUDER: The growth this year has been amazing. I’m sure that, if they would have had a crystal ball a long time ago, they would have not signed this contract that we’re dealing with today in being undersold for our product.
They grouped us with a bunch of other sports, which at the time maybe seemed like a good idea, but with the growth that we’ve had over the last ten years, we have short-changed ourselves. So I’d like to see that change coming with the big TV contracts. I’d like to see also teams being paid for their success in the NCAA Tournament like we have on the men’s side.
Athletic directors are going to invest where they get something back from it. I think at Iowa with our fan base, we’ve gotten something back from women’s basketball. Certainly notoriety as well as fans in the stands being the second best populated fan base we have in the country.
But if AD’s knew, hey, if my team makes it to the NCAA Tournament and I get a little money from that, it would help some of them invest, if they’re not completely vested in women’s basketball now.
Q. Obviously when you’re playing a team like South Carolina, who’s as deep as they are and who can rely on their bench like they can, how does that change your preparation?
LISA BLUDER: It really doesn’t change our preparation, just because we’re not suddenly going to be able to make our team deeper or do things differently. At this time of year, I think, if you start changing things, if you start — you know, you have to tweak things, but if you start making wholesale changes, you’re setting yourself up for failure because that’s just abnormal behavior, and the team is going to recognize that in you and think, uh-oh, something’s wrong. If she needs to change all this right now, something’s wrong.
But you’re right, the depth on their team is amazing. The height on their team is amazing. Obviously they’ve got tremendous coaches, including a former Iowa Hawkeye, I have to say, Jolette Law, wearing the black and gold. I had to tease her last night to make sure she had her black and gold shorts underneath that Gamecocks.
Q. This is a follow-up to the connection about the growth of the tournament. We’re also seeing women athletes be more present socially, like Dawn is doing AFLAC commercials with Coach K. We’re seeing women’s basketball players doing commercials for Gatorade and other companies. What has it been like to watch that progression? And what kind of message should that send to, whether it’s the NCAA, athletic directors, even young girls who are trying to decide if they want to play sports or want to stay in sports?
LISA BLUDER: You have to be naive right now as an athletic director to not see the growth in women’s basketball and the impact that it’s having with businesses and with fan base and with corporate sponsorships and such. I’m going for a walk around the arena a couple days ago, and all of a sudden, Dawn’s flashing down on me, looking above me with the AFLAC commercial.
It’s so good. These players now with NIL, they understand branding. They understand that they have to create a brand for themselves and that they can be very — have their own businesses and become have profitable from that. Why should that not happen? I think it’s a great lesson for them. What college student couldn’t learn a lot from that type of lesson of being able to market themselves?
So I think it’s — I don’t know if that answers your question, but you’d have to be really living in a dark hole to not realize what’s going on with women’s basketball right now.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports
South Carolina Gamecocks
Semi-Finals Pregame Media Conference
DAWN STALEY: Super excited to be here. Congratulations to all the teams that are here. Look forward to tomorrow night.
Q. Aliyah and Zia, there’s been so much talk and attention about this game, this Iowa-South Carolina matchup. I think people have been anticipating it all year. What is it like to be a part of that, and what does it say about the growth of the women’s game that this is probably the most highly anticipated game at either one of the Final Fours?
ALIYAH BOSTON: It’s really exciting. Just like you said, everybody has been talking about this matchup for a really long time. It’s exciting that it’s happening in the Final Four.
I think it’s just a great game for women’s basketball. I know there’s going to be a lot of people in the crowd, a lot of people watching the game. Just super excited to be in that environment.
ZIA COOKE: I think that it just shows how much women’s basketball is evolving, and people actually want to see us play. Luckily it’s two good teams playing against each other in a Final Four.
Like Aliyah said, I think a lot of people are going to watch it. I think it’s going to do big numbers, and it’s going to be a game that goes down in history.
Q. Aliyah, I know that the WNBA Draft is not at the front of your mind, but it is very soon. I wanted to ask, what do you think you will bring to a team at the next level?
ALIYAH BOSTON: That’s a great question. I think my voice, number one. I think that I’m going to be a great communicator to the team. I think my post presence. I’m going to try and just continue to be that dominant post presence, no matter who I’m playing against.
Q. Zia, you and Caitlin played together on a Team USA, I believe the under 16 team. What do you remember about that matchup? How much has she grown, and how much are you looking forward to this matchup?
ZIA COOKE: Caitlin has always been a knockdown shooter since I can remember, and she’s also a great teammate. I think we played together two years. All three of us played together. She’s definitely a knockdown shooter, but her game has grown tremendously in a lot of different ways, and I can’t wait to see it.
Q. For both of you, from the outside, it can look almost easy to do what you’ve done, go undefeated so far, because you guys make it look easy at times. I’m just curious, what are one or two challenges you’ve faced along the way to get to this point?
ZIA COOKE: I think just bringing it every single day. That’s a huge challenge, and not a lot of people can do it, to be able to come into practice every day and know that you have to set the tone. You can’t take any shortcuts. You can’t take any breaks.
It’s very hard. A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to be at the top. It’s actually harder to be at the top than anywhere else, I believe.
Like I said, you’ve got to always keep your foot on that gas, and you have no time to take breaks off.
ALIYAH BOSTON: I also agree with that part, but also just continuing as upperclassmen, bringing the underclassmen along with us. You want them to know to be confident to shoot their shot in the game, just be confident and ready when their name is called.
Q. Aliyah, Dawn has talked a lot about the sacrifices you made for your own individual numbers and things like that. I’m just curious, was there a time where maybe that stuff was more important to you and that you’ve grown? How rewarding is it to make that extra play where you’re setting up your teammates instead of necessarily going for yours, quote, unquote?
ALIYAH BOSTON: I think I’ve always been that type of player that wants the betterment for the team. So like you said, like my numbers are down, but I think it’s because of what we have going on here. Everyone is stepping up. Everyone is hitting shots.
I think everything is being carried equally, and it’s really good. If I could do it again, I would.
Q. So we’ve seen that there’s more interest in the women’s game through TV viewership. How does it feel to be part of a growing movement, and how have you seen that grow over your four years?
ALIYAH BOSTON: It feels really nice. You can always think about people making negative comments about women’s basketball, women’s sports in general, but it’s proof that the numbers are going up. Everyone is excited to watch the women’s game. Everyone is buying their tickets to travel to watch their favorite players, watch their favorite team.
So you can’t really deny that people are interested in watching women’s sports. So it’s just really exciting to be part of the generation that’s continuing to help it grow.
ZIA COOKE: Agree.
Q. I’m curious on how the alum of South Carolina have really encouraged you guys in your journeys ever since you were freshmen up until now. They’ve been in the same place. How have you guys used that encouragement, and how have you been able to do that for your freshmen?
ALIYAH BOSTON: A lot of the alum, they come back. They come to practice. They even reach out, and they talk to us about things.
There have been a couple times where A’ja has reached out. They travel. Ty travels. They want to support us and give us tips where we are, and they just want to see us grow.
For us helping the underclassmen right now, they’re our sisters. We want to see them shine because we understand at some point we’re not going to be on the same team as them, and they’re going to be the new leaders of the program. So we want them to continue the tradition that we have.
ZIA COOKE: I think alums have definitely helped me out a lot, especially with all of the guards. With Ty being here with us, she’s been giving me tips just to be on the big stage again. Like I said, I want to do the same thing for the younger ones.
I’ve always looked up to Ty, and I think I’ve done a good job of leading the younger ones in the space I’m in now. So it’s just a blessing to be here.
Q. They’ve got obviously a great player guard who scores 27 a game, and a post who scores 17 a game. When have you encountered an outside-inside player like that this season? Talk about scouting it, defending it, and how you can take care of one or the other at the same time?
ALIYAH BOSTON: I think our who league has prepared us. There are teams we play with great post players and great guards that do a good job passing the ball. I think we’ve been prepared for that. Just understanding how we’re going to do that.
We’re scouting them, understanding what they do well, just understanding that we’re going to have to compete, be ready for 40 minutes, and just pressure them.
ZIA COOKE: I agree, but I also think we just can’t focus on them. They have a whole starting five we have to worry about. I think if we get too focused on the main player, we’ll let others get off.
So Coach definitely emphasized on that, making sure that we’re playing everyone. Everyone that’s on the floor is doing their defensive job to stop their team from doing what they usually do.
Q. You had a chance that first year, and the COVID pandemic cut it short. How much did that motivate you — what was it like during the pandemic? And how did it motivate you once you got the chance to play in a tournament three straight years?
ALIYAH BOSTON: The pandemic hit us particularly hard especially since we were doing so well in the season. I think it motivated us because we could never get that year back, but we did want to experience that March Madness, that Final Four, that National Championship.
Since that has happened, it’s just something we just continue to work on because we know that is a year we can never get back to experience this.
Q. Obviously you’ve been on the stage here at the Final Four, but this is you guys’ sendoff at the Final Four. Any different feelings about this one, and is there any pressure to go out on top?
ZIA COOKE: I think pressure can either make you or break you. I just want to use the pressure I have in the best way possible to make me go out there and play very hard.
But it definitely is an emotional moment to know this will be our last time to be all together, playing together. We try to keep our emotions to the side and just focus on business right now.
Q. Aliyah and Zia, being that your Coach Dawn Staley has played at the highest level, WNBA, gold medals, the whole nine, what has she taught you about handling the spotlight and making sure you don’t let it overwhelm you and your focus on game time play?
ALIYAH BOSTON: Coach is a legend. That’s just what she is. For us to be coached by her, it’s something truly special.
But just like you said, she’s taught us how not to get too high, like you said, or too low, because being balanced is the most important thing. Being able to compartmentalize different aspects of what’s happening, but being focused and ready to go when it’s time to step on the floor.
ZIA COOKE: Something that Coach always had to tell me is don’t get too high with the highs or low with the lows. She just says maintain. That’s what I try to do the best I can.
It took me a while to get here, but I finally can maintain.
Q. This program won its first National Championship in this arena when you guys were being recruited. Do you guys remember watching that game at all? How much of an influence did seeing them win that title have on your decision to come to South Carolina?
ALIYAH BOSTON: I definitely remember watching that game. Pretty excited. Thinking about my decision and that game specifically, overall that’s what South Carolina is all about. Winning a national title was pretty cool because I knew that I also wanted to do that and play under Coach Staley.
ZIA COOKE: I think after I watched that game, I told my dad, I want to go there. I want to go there.
Of course I had to weigh all my options, but when I saw them win a National Championship, just seeing the type of person that Coach was and the players that she was recruiting, it definitely made me want to come here.
Q. How much of a challenge is Iowa’s pace and the speed that they play with?
ALIYAH BOSTON: I think we also like to push pace. We like to get up and down the floor. So I think it could be a fast-based game. I don’t think we’re going to look at it as a challenge because they like to get up and down the floor because we enjoy doing that as well.
Q. Sticking with the theme of the alumni, that 2017 team, have any of the people or players reached out to you and gave you any advice since they played at this site and won the first National Championship here?
ALIYAH BOSTON: Just telling us to just compete, that’s really what it is. Be ready because we’re built for the moment.
ZIA COOKE: Same.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, ladies.
Q. So you’ve talked a lot about as far as investment in the women’s game, the women’s tournament getting units, maybe breaking off the media rights package. Let’s say the NCAA does get more money to invest. In addition to units, what would you like to see them invest in to improve the women’s Final Four even more?
DAWN STALEY: You said aside from the units? I think we’re moving in the right direction. I thought that being a part of two regional sites and how well that went off, I think the structure was there because that’s what the men do. So that was pretty cool.
The units are pretty big. Like that’s pretty big because that’s the thing that’s been weighing us down, meaning it costs a lot to bring all of these teams all around the country in the tournament, and if we can bring millions into our athletics departments, I think it would help on our campuses.
So it’s a long-term effect where, if you’re a football player, your experience is probably a lot different than a women’s basketball player. We can all agree to that because they’re bringing in the money, right? Then if we’re bringing in the money, our experience will be a little bit different, and there are things that coaches won’t have to fight for. They just happen because you’re bringing in some money. You’re not seeing the red always. So that’s what that would mean.
So it just would elevate the whole student-athlete experience from a women’s basketball perspective.
Q. Two completely unrelated questions. What makes Aliyah such a great player? And then the second question is you have been very visible in terms of using your platform. When and why did you decide that was so important? And what kind of message do you think you’re giving to your players by being as vocal as you are?
DAWN STALEY: Aliyah is an extraordinary person. So it starts there. She’s rooted in her faith. She has an incredibly beautiful family that they get it. They get it. They don’t really take themselves too seriously. They got a praying mother, and she’s got a great support system.
So Aliyah’s allowed to be who she is. She’s found herself at a young age because of the foundation that her parents built for her.
And then as far as using my voice, I think I’ve been asked a lot more questions because of our success. I mean, if you ask me something that people ask me nowadays, 12 years ago, I would probably give you my heart, what was on my heart.
I think the platform has gotten bigger because of our success, and I’m asked a lot more questions. So I try to give people what they ask me from my own experience. It may not be for everyone, but it’s from my own experience from being around the game.
Q. You have this outstanding group of seniors who plenty of them will be going to the WNBA. What are they going to be bringing to the teams that get them?
DAWN STALEY: Our players are prepared. They’re prepared for the rigors of the challenges of what the WNBA is all about. Whether that’s — I think the biggest thing is they’re mentally prepared for whatever a team needs, whether that’s coming off the bench, whether that’s being thrown into being a starter, whether that’s being able to communicate and pick up things fairly quickly because the league moves very quickly.
So the pace of the league, I don’t think they’ll have an issue picking up, and if you can pick things up, then you increase your chances of making the team and making an impact.
Q. Dawn, what do you see in the matchup with Caitlin Clark? And along those lines, have you sensed any extra motivation or juice from your players because she’s already won a couple of Player of the Year awards? And I’m sure they believe the Player of the Year is on your team.
DAWN STALEY: The juice is in the winning the National Championship. Our players don’t really care about anything besides that. So we are — again, we’re strong in our beliefs and what we do and how we’ve done things.
And at this point, we just want to win, and that’s their approach. I love them for that. They’re not letting any one thing or any one person distract them from the goal at hand.
Q. When you won the first title that was built with a lot of players from South Carolina, maybe more regionally. Obviously this group comes from all corners of the globe. Talk about branching out. Was it just simply the success that got you on the radar, as maybe Zia and Aliyah alluded to? And what an interesting collection of kids from South America, Canada, and various U.S. states and territories.
DAWN STALEY: I think what’s attractive about our program is I think we’re just authentic. Whether you like us or not, you can respect where we’re coming from.
I know the parents of the players or prospects that I recruit, that we recruit, they know that what we’re telling them holds true. From us telling them, and then when they come on the campus, they hear it from other players, they meet other parents. And it’s something that you have to want for yourself and for your daughter because it’s not easy.
Like coming to South Carolina, it’s not an easy thing. It becomes easier when you’re able to grasp what we want. Like we want them to be successful individually and collectively. How you get there, it’s hard, and it’s uncomfortable. But once you’re there, you have a pretty good understanding of how it works and how to be successful.
Q. Just curious, what have you learned from any of your previous Final Four runs at South Carolina that you can apply this year, either as you prepare individually or as you prepare your team?
DAWN STALEY: I don’t think I can remember. There’s just really a lot of stuff that you have to do. So if you don’t know that and you’re experiencing it for the first time, it’s hard because you don’t feel like you get enough time to prep, and it’s the biggest stage of college women’s basketball.
So that’s what it is, just prepare for long days and less prep time. But once you’re here, you’re not going to create any magic. You’re not going to create any magic. I do think rest is equally as important as getting out on the floor and working out.
So just the experience of getting back here and knowing and where to focus.
Q. Ticket prices for the women is more than the men on average. There’s an undefeated team in you guys, there’s Caitlin Clark, Aliyah Boston. It seems like a lot more interesting storylines in the women’s Final Four than the men’s Final Four. You’ve been around this is a while. Is it interesting to see the growth in the attention on the games Friday and Sunday instead of Saturday and Monday?
DAWN STALEY: It’s great. It’s been building towards this for a long time. Fortunately for us — not just South Carolina, but us as women’s basketball — we’ve got a lot of star power behind our sport. It increases. You just mentioned two, but you’ve got Angel Reese. You’ve got Amoore. You’ve got Kitley. You’ve got all these players who have been incredible, just incredible — creating incredible stories for our game.
I do think you all are telling them, and that’s always a great thing.
Q. A couple of unrelated questions. First one, kind of bouncing off of that, people were saying, oh, Dawn should go for the Temple men’s basketball job. Did you have any thoughts on that? Obviously you’ve got a good thing going here in South Carolina.
DAWN STALEY: No thoughts. I don’t want to coach in the men’s game. It’s cold up there too.
Q. Back in your playing days when you were facing a great individual opponent, did you seek out the job of defending that opponent yourself? And inside your locker room right now, is there kind of a battle about who’s going to defend Caitlin?
DAWN STALEY: Did I seek out? I don’t know if I — I think Debbie Ryan just knew. I think she just knew. I think she played off of my competitiveness. So I think I guarded — maybe Tammi guarded it. I don’t know.
But in our locker room, yes, they’re super competitive. They all want a chance to guard her. It’s going to take all of them probably and more to guard Caitlin. She is someone that is unpredictable, like she’ll be able to pivot and take and make incredible shots, both from outside, way outside the three, to at the rim. So we got to show her different looks in order for us to hopefully keep her somewhat under control.
Q. My question for you is obviously there’s a lot more growth in the game, which is great to see. How do you feel it’s affecting the basketball — each year is different, right? Can you feel the difference compared to last year, to the extra eyeballs watching on TV, making your players a little more nervous, if they’re focusing on that? How do you maintain the same kind of focus and performance that you’ve been able to as the interest kind of grows?
DAWN STALEY: I’ll say this, the people in Columbia, South Carolina, our fans, our local media, they’ve put us on a big stage for a very long time. So we’ve created habits to help us deal with situations like this.
Like I don’t think our players are going to run from the spotlight. I think they run towards it because they want to win a National Championship. So we’ve created habits and approaches to big games like this that will keep our nerves under wraps.
For me, I follow their lead.
Q. All year we’ve kind of heard Caitlin Clark versus Aliyah Boston kind of debate. How important is that debate for the growth of the women’s game and to see it unfold on the Final Four stage?
DAWN STALEY: Any time you’re able to talk about our game and talk about two young women who have been storylines throughout the season I think is great. I do think some people do cross the line at times because each of their fan bases’ favorites? It’s been talked about.
I just don’t like when people cross the line because our game is pure, it’s blossoming. But I guess it’s part of sports when people can take jabs at either young people. I just hope they’re not looking at it and seeing it because it’s not cool.
Q. What do you remember about that trip to Dallas in 2017 in the Final Four? And how do you think your program has grown, evolved, to be here today going for back to back, third since then?
DAWN STALEY: I love Dallas. Dallas is where we got our first National Championship. I just remember obviously the Dallas police officers, the motorcade. They get us where we need to go. It’s super cool seeing that, and it’s super cool to experience that again.
I just remember the shot that beat UConn and then having to play — having an all-SEC National Championship Game. And then us knowing Mississippi State as well as we knew them because we played them two, three weeks before in the SEC tournament championship. I just remember the familiarity of our opponent and knowing that we got a really good shot at winning.
Then our players, although it was really hard to win, they made a mounting comeback. But relieved that we actually won the championship.
Q. Dawn, your players were just talking about the alum from that first championship team, as well as others they have relationships with. What does it mean to you to see your alum continue to pour into the current players and also to see the ripple effect that it has on them to want to continue that?
DAWN STALEY: I mean, it’s cool. Every season is a lot different, but every player that has played in our program, they leave a legacy of leadership that just continues to trickle down to the younger players.
The players that — the former players that come back, the ones that are in the WNBA, they talk more about the WNBA than they do actually this moment that we’re in. I’m happy that they get to hear some of their experiences.
Some of them have got a big decision to make over the next few days. So it’s cool that we’ve got somewhat of a cheat code of having a lot of players in the league to allow them to make an informed decision.
Q. Two questions completely unrelated. Number one, so much is being made of the individual awards, but when we look at Greenville and the MVP and we look at even yesterday what the National Defensive Player of the Year, Aliyah Boston used both occasions to highlight her teammates, L.A. and Brea Beal. Talk about how that attitude, that selflessness has impacted the personality and character of your team. Also, when it comes to the winning formula for South Carolina, in addition to what we see on the court, the strength and conditioning, the preparation we don’t see off the court, how that has played a factor.
DAWN STALEY: Aliyah Boston, there will not be another Aliyah Boston. Her selflessness, her ability to meet moments on the court and off the court, and it’s authentic. It’s organic. It’s genuine. She really means everything that she says out of her mouth. Like she really means it.
So I’m not surprised that she used it in that moment, where she’s being recognized and rewarded for the efforts that she’s given our team over the past four years, to bestow it on someone else on her team is Aliyah Boston-like.
Then our strength and conditioning coach, they’re called performance coaches now, our athletic trainer, I mean, they are the ones that — when we are our most healthiest, we are our most successful, and a lot has to do with Molly Binetti and Craig Oates. And they get along. I do think they go out drinking too at times.
But they have built a relationship to where they work well together. They bookend our players into getting their mind, body, and souls in a place where they have to get up to practice, like we practice every single day. So they have a lot to do with that because as coaches we’re not a part of that. The performance coach and the trainer are joined at the hip to make sure that our players are in a great position to perform every single day.
So to be at the Final Four, to prep for the semifinals game tomorrow, a lot of credit has to go to them in making sure that our players are ready to rock and roll.
Q. We’re the same age, so I have followed your career from the time you played at Virginia, and I’ve always wanted to ask you about great teams you were on with Tammi and Heidi, not winning at all, has that fueled you in terms of your success? Because you’ve won everywhere since at all levels as a player and a coach.
DAWN STALEY: I mean, it used to fuel me when we hadn’t won. Now I think basketball has a strange of just looking out, like looking out for the people who really do it for the purity of it. Like I just, I love basketball. I love what I do. And I do think I’m favored. Like God’s favor has shined bright on my career.
But, no, I’m not driven by it anymore. But it was one of my lifelong dreams as a child growing up in North Philly in the projects. I only saw women play two times on television: That was the Olympics, and that was the National Championship Game. That was the driving force in me wanting to accomplish that because at that time that was the biggest — it’s probably still the biggest thing besides playing in the league.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports