By Rixon Lane
The first Final Four contest in South Carolina basketball history is just three hours away.
The Gamecocks will take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the two teams are about as evenly matched as possible.
Here are five battles that may likely determine who advances to the national championship:
1. South Carolina's FG Defense vs. Notre Dame's Shooting
The Gamecocks enter tonight's contest as one of the toughest defenses in the nation. South Carolina is allowing opponents to shoot just 34.7% from the floor, sixth-lowest in the country. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has been lights out from the field this season, shooting 49.8% on the year, second only to UConn. The Gamecocks must force the Irish to make contested shots and deny easy layups.
2. South Carolina's Post Players vs. Brianna Turner
Turner is the Notre Dame equivalent of A'ja Wilson. The 6'3" freshman is making 65.6% of her shots this season from the floor. South Carolina will likely use a combination of Wilson, Aleighsa Welch, and Alaina Coates to try and slow Turner down. If the Gamecocks can keep Turner at bay without fouling, they will have a chance to assert themselves on the block.
3. Aleighsa Welch vs. Notre Dame's Defensive Rebounding
No player in South Carolina history has pulled down more offensive rebounds than Aleighsa Welch. The senior from Goose Creek is the key to South Carolina avoiding one-and-done possessions against the Irish. Notre Dame has out rebounded its opponents by an average of 8.6 per game. Welch will have to bring her usual toughness and energy on the offensive glass if she hopes to give the Gamecocks extra opportunities on the offensive end.
4. Dawn Staley vs. Muffet McGraw
Dawn Staley has guided South Carolina from a 10-win team in her first season in Columbia to 40 minutes away from playing for a national title. Meanwhile, McGraw has built the second-most successful program in women's basketball. The Irish are making their fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four, while South Carolina has played with a bull's eye on its back all season. Expect this game to come down to halftime and final minute adjustments.
5. Tiffany Mitchell vs. Jewel Lloyd
It's the matchup everyone wants to see. Mitchell, one of the most versatile guards in the sports against Lloyd, a phenomenal scorer who has torched some of the best teams in the land. Mitchell has already shown a knack for late-game heroics in this tournament, while Lloyd has been somewhat quiet through Notre Dame's journey to Tampa. If the game is on the line in the closing minutes, the ball is going to these two.