Brea Beal’s defense propels South Carolina into the Final Four

COLUMBIA, SC — Brea Beal is not only South Carolina’s X-factor in one of the best defenses in the country, but also a four-year lesson in sacrifice and reinvention that could add a second straight NCAA title to her resume.

Beal is generally third when most think of the landmark recruiting class of 2019, led by announced All-American Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke. But she could play the most important role in the Final Four most likely checking Iowa’s Caitlin Clark in the national semifinals.

The Gamecocks (36-0) meet the Hawkeyes (30-6) in Friday night’s second game in Dallas, with the winner playing LSU or Virginia Tech for the national title on Sunday.

Beal, who has started 136 of 137 games over her four seasons, and her older teammates have won championships in their time. They have won three Southeastern Conference Tournament titles, made three consecutive Final Fours and are chasing their second NCAA crown.

Beal takes on the opponent’s best player and often limits her effectiveness – a role Beal took time to embrace.

“It definitely came with some difficulties, but over time I just kind of went in,” she said at last weekend’s Greenville 1 Regional.

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 and has averaged 20 or more points per game over her past three seasons. Beal joined Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings as the only player in the state to receive that honor as a sophomore.

Beal expected to make the offensive impact that Boston and Cooke had with the Gamecocks.

“It’s not necessarily something I was like, ‘I’m this defender, I’m the best defender,'” said Beal. “It came naturally, as well as offensively, it’s just something you have to be patient and just accept over time.”

Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley sees more in Beal’s worth than what she does on the court. Sometimes overlooked behind Boston and Cooke, Beal didn’t want to switch or complain about her score in the Portal era. She put her head down, Staley said, making herself an indispensable part of the undefeated defending champion.

“She needed time to really relax and see where she could find effective spots,” 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 win over Louisville, making it to their first Final Four in 30 years.

Clark isn’t one-dimensional — “I pride myself on doing a lot of different things for this team,” she said — and Beal understands it takes a team effort to slow her down.

South Carolina has relied on its defense throughout Beal’s tenure, and this year’s run is no different. The Gamecocks lead the country in blocks and rebound margin, second in field goal percentage defense and third in points allowed.

Cooke believes it’s Beal’s defensive focus that drives all Gamecocks to ramp up their intensity that side of their game. “She’s the one who taught us how to play defense,” Cooke said. “Especially me. Just watching her and the things she does definitely let me down.”

Cooke’s offense could improve Beal’s game lately. Beal has hit double figures in eight games this season, seven of them since early February. She had 10 points in a 59-43 win over UCLA in the Sweet 16 and 16 in an 86-75 win over Maryland in the Elite Eight.

Once considered the most likely freshman class of 2019 to play an extra season, the double threat in WNBA mock drafts has increased. has predicted she will be named seventh in next month’s draft and go to Indiana Fever in the first round.

Beal isn’t worried about her pro prospects or enjoying everything she’s accomplished. She just wants to end her collegiate career with one more championship moment — and that means dialing up defense.

“We’re a defensive team,” she said. “Coming into this part of the season we definitely need our defense against every single one.”

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