Brea Beal's defense lifts South Carolina to Final Four
By PETE IACOBELLI
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Brea Beal is not just South Carolina's X factor in one of the country's best defenses but also a four-year lesson in sacrifice and reinvention that may add a second straight NCAA title to her resume.
Beal is generally third when most think of the landmark recruiting class from 2019 led by heralded All-American Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke. But she could have the most critical role at the Final Four, most likely checking Iowa's All-American Caitlin Clark in the national semifinals.
The Gamecocks (36-0) face the Hawkeyes (30-6) in the second game in Dallas on Friday night, with the winner playing LSU or Virginia Tech for the national title on Sunday.
Beal, who has started 136 of 137 games in her four seasons, and her senior teammates have racked up championships in their time. They have won three Southeastern Conference Tournament titles, have been to three straight Final Fours and are chasing their second NCAA crown.
Beal takes on the opponent's best player and, more times than not, limits her effectiveness - a role that took Beal time to embrace.
"It definitely came with some hardship, but throughout time I just walked into it,” she said at the Greenville 1 Regional last weekend.
It wasn't a path Beal envisioned after a celebrated prep career. She was a three-time Illinois Ms. Basketball from Rock Island High School, averaging 20 or more points a game her final three seasons. Beal joined Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings as the only players in the state to earn that award as a sophomore.
Beal expected to make the offensive impact that Boston and Cooke have had with the Gamecocks.
“It’s not necessarily something I was like, ‘I’m this defender, I’m the best defender,'” Beal said. "It came naturally, just as well as offensively, it’s just something you’ve got to be patient and just accept as time goes.”
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley sees Beal's value as more than what she does on the court. Beal, overlooked sometimes behind Boston and Cooke, didn't look to transfer in the portal era or complain about her scoring. She has kept her head down, Staley said, and made herself an indispensable part of the undefeated defending national champions.
“It took her time to just really relax and see where she can find spots to be effective,” Staley said. “Now that she's a senior, she sees it.”
Clark, the Iowa star, would have to be one of Beal's most difficult assignments. Clark had a triple-double - 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds - in the Hawkeyes' 97-83 victory over Louisville to reach their first Final Four in 30 years.
Clark is not one-dimensional - “I pride myself in doing a lot of different things for this team,” she said - and Beal understands it will take a team effort to slow her down.
South Carolina has relied on its defense throughout Beal's time and this year's run is no different. The Gamecocks lead the country in blocks and rebound margin, are second in field-goal percentage defense and are third in points allowed.
Cooke believes it's Beal's defensive focus that has all the Gamecocks looking to raise their intensity on that side of their game. “She's the one that taught us how to play defense,” Cooke said. “Especially me. Just watching her and the things she does definitely wore off on me.”
Cooke's offense may be elevating Beal's game as of late. Beal has scored in double digits in eight games this season, seven of those since the start of February. She had 10 points in a 59-43 win over UCLA in the Sweet 16 and 16 in an 86-75 victory over Maryland in the Elite Eight.
Once considered the most likely of the 2019 freshmen class to play an extra season, the dual threat has been rising in WNBA mock drafts. ESPN.com has projected her getting called seventh in next month's draft, going to the Indiana Fever in the first round.
Beal isn't worried about her pro prospects or savoring all she's accomplished. She only wants to finish her college career with another championship moment - and that means dialing up the defense.
“We're a defensively minded team,” she said. “When we come to this part of the season, we definitely need our defense from every single individual.”
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
Updated March 29, 2023