Clark buries S.C. with 41, carries Iowa into final

Clark buries S.C. with 41, carries Iowa into final

DALLAS — All season, it felt as if South Carolina was headed for an impending coronation. The Gamecocks dominated opponents with such ease, it seemed hard to envision how they would lose.

Not a team with this much size, depth, physicality and rebounding prowess. Not a team with Aliyah Boston, the projected No. 1 player in the upcoming WNBA draft if she declares. Not a team with Dawn Staley on the sideline, the coach who has made South Carolina the new standard-bearer.

Even headed into its Final Four matchup against Iowa and player of the year Caitlin Clark on Friday night, it felt so simple to say South Carolina would physically wear down the high-flying Hawkeyes and the most electrifying player in college basketball.

Then the game started, and the most infallible team in the country looked … fallible. Clark pushed the pace, driving into the lane untouched, making beautiful touch passes inside that her teammates easily dropped in the basket. She was the unquestioned star on the court, and South Carolina seemed helpless to keep up.

Even as the Gamecocks made runs to challenge Iowa, the Hawkeyes never seemed to lose their grip on the game. Boston played most of it in foul trouble, and Clark took center stage, dazzling with every move, her smooth shot moving the Hawkeyes closer and closer to the improbable.

When it was over, Iowa had defeated South Carolina 77-73, pulling off the biggest upset in the Final Four since 2017, when No. 1 UConn lost in overtime in the national semifinals to Mississippi State, snapping a 111-game winning streak. The team that beat Mississippi State to win the first national title in program history?

South Carolina.

There will be no repeating as national champions for the Gamecocks, no perfect season. Staley said Thursday that “the juice was in winning the national championship,” yet her team could not muster enough down the stretch to pull off the comeback win.

“I don’t think we felt pressure to win the game, we just didn’t perform,” Staley said. “And that hasn’t been us all season long.”

She added: “I’m pretty numb right now. I just want to make sure my players are OK. Some of them just played their last game in a Gamecock uniform. I want to make sure I’m there for them. I want to make sure their hearts aren’t hurting too bad.”

Clark finished with 41 points for the second straight NCAA tournament game, throwing her team on her back again, growing her legend all the same. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, she is the first player in NCAA tournament history with back-to-back 40-point games.

Now she gets a shot at a national championship the Gamecocks thought would be theirs. The Hawkeyes will play LSU for the championship on Sunday afternoon.

“We had nothing to lose. I have all the confidence in the world in this group, and they believe right back in me, and that’s all you need,” Clark said. “All we do is believe in one another and we love each other to death, and that’s what a true team is. If you want an example of a team, that’s what this is.”

South Carolina had not lost a game since the SEC tournament final against Kentucky in 2022, a crushing defeat that set the table for this magnificent run. Since then, the Gamecocks have become the standard-bearer in women’s college basketball, the measuring stick by which all others are judged.

Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal elevated them further, as starters together since their freshman seasons in 2019, taking South Carolina to three straight Final Fours and unprecedented heights. It was Cooke who kept the Gamecocks in the game in the first half after Boston exited late in the first quarter in foul trouble.

Boston had zero points in the first half, a stunning stat line considering how dominant she has been throughout her career. Cooke directly blamed the officiating, and said Boston had to alter her game once she returned because she was fearful she would foul out.

“It definitely affects you because we need Aliyah’s points to win games,” Cooke said. “She wasn’t out there, and I saw her on the bench way too much, and it wasn’t her fault.”

Staley said Boston didn’t have the “freedom of movement” she is used to.

“Because of that, she was strapped, but we’ve done that to other people as well, so I guess we got a taste of our own medicine,” Staley said.

Clark, meanwhile, scored or assisted on 31 of Iowa’s 38 points in that opening half, showing once again just how worthy she was of winning player of the year honors this season.

Cooke played the entire first half and had 18 points. Somehow, South Carolina trailed by only one point at the break.

But even when Boston returned in the second half, South Carolina could not quite find the “juice.” Kamilla Cardoso was a consistent force inside, but every time the Gamecocks edged closer, Clark and Iowa had an answer.

With 21 seconds left and South Carolina trailing 73-71, the Gamecocks had one last chance to save their season. Clark missed a 3-point shot, and the best rebounding team in the nation failed to grab the rebound, a high statistical improbability, considering what the Gamecocks have done all season. McKenna Warnock grabbed it, and South Carolina had no choice but to foul. Iowa then closed the door on the Gamecocks’ perfect season.

“That was a long shot and a long rebound,” said Boston, who finished with eight points. “Those can be really hard just based on how hard that came off the backboard, and that shot ricocheted off the backboard. It was really high, and we just weren’t in the position to get it.”

Staley pointed to three straight possessions late in the game when her team turned the ball over, saying that had a direct impact on the outcome. Beal said she felt the team started pressing late in the game as time was ticking off the clock, especially since the Gamecocks had not been in a close game since an overtime win against Ole Miss on Feb. 19.

“When it gets so late into the game, you’re like, ‘We’ve got to do something,'” Beal said. “Now you’re kind of in panic mode because nobody wants to lose — especially at this point in the season. We’re definitely disappointed. It’s not easy to have your last game a loss and expecting more from your team.”

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Staley and her players looked stunned. Clark threw the ball up in the air as Iowa celebrated at midcourt. Cooke left the court in tears. Nobody on the South Carolina bench ever considered this would be the way the Gamecocks’ season would end. But sometimes, perfect seasons don’t get the perfect ending.

In the Gamecocks’ locker room afterward, there was a sense of resigned disbelief. Nobody cried. Rather, players respectfully answered questions with little emotion, perhaps finding it too difficult to process the way their season had just ended.

“I’ve been holding in a lot of emotions, just until we won,” Cooke said. “It was over quicker for me than I expected. I thought I would be here for two more days, and then I would be expected to cry then. I didn’t expect to cry with a loss.”

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Dan Campbell provides an update on injured Lions DL Levi Onwuzurike

Dan Campbell provides an update on injured Lions DL Levi Onwuzurike

One of the openings on the Detroit Lions defensive line wasn’t supposed to be there. The Lions drafted Levi Onwuzurike two years ago to play the exact spot that remains largely unfilled as an upfield tackle.

Onwuzurike has barely played since being the 41st pick in the 2021 NFL draft. He missed the entire 2022 season after aggravating a long-running back injury on the very first rep of full contact in training camp. The back issue goes back several years for Onwuzurike to his earlier days at the University of Washington.

Head coach Dan Campbell offered a brief, solemn update on the big DT and his ongoing back problems.

“We talked to him a couple of weeks ago, he was doing good, the rehab has gone well,” Campbell said via Dave Birkett of the Free Press. “But you just don’t know. You don’t know with a back. But I mean certainly, he’s going to get an opportunity if the body will allow it.”

It’s that last phrase that is the troublesome part for Onwuzurike.

Story originally appeared on Lions Wire

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Izzo: Mental health big driver of transfer waivers

Izzo: Mental health big driver of transfer waivers

Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo said he has “no faith” in the NCAA’s plan to limit the immediate eligibility exceptions for two-time transfers because players will continue to use issues such as mental health to earn waivers.

Izzo, who also said he’s against players gaining immediate eligibility if they transfer a second time, made the comments Friday morning on ESPN Radio’s “Keyshawn, JWill and Max.”

Earlier this year, the NCAA sent a memo to schools that stated players who transfer a second time won’t be granted a waiver and will have to sit for a season if they transfer for reasons such as a coaching change or a reduction of playing time. But concerns about “physical and mental health” or “physical or sexual assault” will allow a player to qualify for immediate eligibility.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the NCAA,” Izzo said. “This waiver thing. If you’ve got a hangnail, you get a waiver. I just don’t believe in that, because I think somebody, whether it’s a lawyer, whether it’s agents, whether it’s people, they’re going to just come up with a different reason. Mental health is a big reason. I just don’t see why sitting out is such a bad thing because 90 percent of the kids that are sitting out aren’t pros anyway or they’d go pro.”

He said the waiver system that grants players immediate eligibility hurts them in the long run because they don’t learn to become resilient.

“I’m not for it. I’m not for anything,” Izzo said. “I just think we’re hurting decisions that kids make. I mean we’ve got 1,200. By Tuesday, we’ll have 1,500, and then we’re going to get a second wave of kids in the portal. And kids are going to go places that maybe it’s a little bit for the money, maybe it’s because they’re worried about beating somebody else out. We all had to beat people out … and I think we’re losing that. Where’s the competitive edge?”

Izzo also said hundreds of players who enter the transfer portal never get an opportunity to play anywhere. He said the movement impacts the player more than the program.

Those schools, in the future, could be participating in the NCAA tournament with an expanded field. Izzo said he’s concerned about the current seeding system — Michigan State, which made a run to the Sweet 16, earned a No. 7 seed after finishing third in the Big Ten — and its reliance on metrics. But he’s also worried about an expanded field potentially diluting the postseason.

“I don’t know if I [would go] to 90 or not,” Izzo said. “I’m all for getting more teams in … but there’s something about this tournament that I hope we don’t lose. That’s the excitement of it, and it doesn’t get watered down.”

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Seahawks rescind tender on RFA safety Neal

Seahawks rescind tender on RFA safety Neal

The Seattle Seahawks have withdrawn the restricted free agent tender on safety Ryan Neal, according to ESPN’s Field Yates.

The unexpected move makes Neal an unrestricted free agent and clears $2.627 million in much-needed salary cap space for Seattle.

The Seahawks assigned Neal the low RFA tender earlier this month, which meant a one-year offer for $2.627 million and secured their right to match any offer sheet that he might sign with another team. But their depth chart and salary cap picture have since changed.

The Seahawks signed former New York Giants starter Julian Love to a two-year, $12 million deal, bolstering their safety depth behind Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs with a player they didn’t expect to be available at that price.

The Love signing was one example of how Seattle has been more aggressive in free agency this year than normal. The team’s other significant moves include a three-year, $51.53 million splurge on defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones and, most recently, a reunion with linebacker Bobby Wagner on a one-year, $5.5 million deal.

General manager John Schneider has said they want to continue adding to their defensive line, but the money they’ve spent has left them tight against the salary cap.

Neal, 27, has been an unsung hero for the Seahawks in each of the past three season and was one of their defensive MVPs last year while again filling in for an injured Adams. Neal had career highs with 66 tackles, four tackles for loss and eight passes defensed. He also had an interception, a sack and a forced fumble in 14 games, missing three because of a knee injury.

Neal entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Illinois in 2018. He’s also spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons.

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Former Patriots CB Asante Samuel responds to Matthew Judon callout

Former Patriots CB Asante Samuel responds to Matthew Judon callout

Asante Samuel isn’t letting Matthew Judon have the last word.

The former New England Patriots cornerback came under fire by Judon on Thursday after telling Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to steer clear of playing for Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

“Lamar Jackson, my brother trust me you don’t want to play for Belichick,” Samuel posted on social media. 

That comment prompted Judon, one of the locker room leaders for the Patriots, to clap back in defense of his coach. Samuel has made a habit of taking shots at Belichick on social media in the past, but this time, Judon wasn’t letting him get away with it.

“Hush up. It’s different over here,” Judon posted. 

There was obviously no way Samuel was going to go away quietly after that response. So he sent off a slew of tweets in response on Friday.

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This isn’t the first time Samuel has criticized Belichick, and whether Judon or anyone else stands up or not, it probably won’t be the last.

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Oddsmakers, bettors trying to gauge impact of new rules

Oddsmakers, bettors trying to gauge impact of new rules

Major League Baseball’s new rules didn’t impact scoring significantly in spring training, and oddsmakers began the season without adjusting their numbers on runs scored, while taking a wait-and-see approach to the pitch clock and elimination of the infield shift.

MLB games have averaged 9.1 runs scored over the past five seasons. Last year’s 8.57 runs per game was the lowest since 2015. Spring training games, with the new rules implemented, averaged 10.1 runs, down slightly from last year.

Pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base. Hitters must be in the batter’s box with eight seconds on the pitch clock. Hitters are allowed one timeout per at-bat to reset the pitch clock. Pitchers are restricted to stepping off the rubber only twice per plate appearance, including for pickoff attempts. The rule resets if a runner advances during the same plate appearance. And larger bases are being used to increase the success rate on steals.

“We don’t really see a direct correlation from the pitch clock to more scoring,” said Randy Blum, who oversees baseball odds for the SuperBook in Las Vegas. “We were not planning on adjusting our totals off that.”

Halvor England, BetMGM’s lead baseball trader, expects the elimination of the traditional shift to increase scoring marginally, but also believes pitchers will have more control over the hitter during an at-bat because of the pitch clock.

“I think it’s going to be a little more offsetting than people realize, almost a wash,” Halvor said. “I don’t anticipate there to be less scoring overall, but on a game-to-game basis, it’s going to be very marginal.”

The bigger bases being used this season, however, are a difference-maker in bookmakers’ and bettors’ eyes. Steals were up notably in success rate and volume — nearly double from last spring training — this year. Bettors expect the trend to continue.

The SuperBook offered a season-long prop on the over/under on most stolen bases by an individual player. Blum said the book opened the total at 50.5, a number that reflected about four to five more stolen bases than if the rule had not been in place. Still, sharp bettors took the over, causing the SuperBook to move the number to 52.5.

“That’s one thing [larger bases] that we did adjust our numbers on based on the rule changes, and it seems to be something that the bettors are taking note of also,” Blum said. “That was not necessarily a prop that in the past would get a lot of attention either way.”

Joe Fortuna, a veteran professional bettor and baseball fan, said he did edge his numbers up on runs scored because of the rule changes and was looking to bet overs early in the season for multiple reasons, including potential pitchers’ fatigue while working with the pitch clock.

“These guys, in April, might be a little bit out of shape, so I don’t know if running 100 mph pitches up there every 15 seconds will make them tire out faster,” Fortuna said. “The different rules all seemed to lean toward hitting to us.”

Fortuna also examined which hitters faced the most infield shifts last season and pointed out left-handed batters like San Diego’s Juan Soto, Texas’ Corey Seager and Kansas City’s Vinnie Pasquantino as ones who could benefit from its elimination.

“The shift is huge to me,” Fortuna said. “We actually bet on Pasquantino to win MVP today at 250-1. He batted .295 last year and faced 93.8% three-man shifts. That was the highest.”

For now, only one day into the season, bettors and bookmakers will be watching closely to see if there are any trends related to the new rule changes, but early on, it’ll be a guessing game.

“There will be some advantage for bettors if they can figure it all out quicker than the market,” Halvor said.

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