Many thought that South Carolina winning the national championship this year was a forgone conclusion. Louisiana State coach Kim Mulkey told reporters after LSU’s Round-of-8 win that South Carolina was “going to be right there” in the championship game.
South Carolina went undefeated, dominated teams all season and was the defending champion. But Gamecox doesn’t play a player like Caitlin Clarke.
On Friday night, Clark and Iowa did what no other team has done, beating South Carolina 77-73 and en route to the program’s first championship game — all the upsets that occurred in March. they.
Instead, Iowa, perhaps understandably, celebrated after the game as if it had won the championship. Clark, who finished with 41 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds, ran around the arena with his hands over his ears as Iowa’s white-knuckle fans cheered him on. Teammates hugged and cheered at midcourt, and players sang the school’s fight song with the fans.
During the game a fan prominently waved a sign that read “We believe in Clark.”
“Everybody in America picked South Carolina, and deservedly so,” Clark said, adding: “But at the same time, the guys in our locker room believed in us, and all you need is faith in each other.”
Iowa will play Louisiana State in the title game on Sunday afternoon. The third-seeded Tigers advanced to their first NCAA final appearance in program history Friday night with a 79-72 victory over Virginia Tech. Louisiana State pulled away late in a mostly back-and-forth game thanks to the one-two punch of Angel Reese and Alexis Morris.
Reese notched his 33rd triple-double of the season, tying the NCAA record with 24 points and 12 rebounds; Morris led all scorers with 27 points.
Once that game ended, the American Airlines Center quickly filled up for what many fans and observers of the game considered the main event. Spectators dressed in black, gold and garnet were here to watch college basketball’s most anticipated matchup in the NCAA Division I Final Four, a suffocating, undefeated South Carolina team against Clark, widely considered the player of the year.
“Tonight showed how much fun women’s basketball can be,” Clark said. “I’m sure a lot of people want it to be seven series. That would be a lot of fun.”
For much of the first half, Iowa dominated South Carolina and got its star, Aaliyah Boston, into early foul trouble. He played just eight minutes and didn’t score in the first half, but Iowa led by just 1 at halftime, largely due to South Carolina’s relentless depth. The lead seemed to quickly evaporate with Boston again in the second half.
Iowa’s zone defense strategy was effective, dropping Clark off the top of the zone and into Boston or any post player who received the ball. Clark’s assist defense and the health of center Monica Sinano forced 15 South Carolina turnovers. On the offensive end, Iowa picked apart South Carolina’s defense with pick-and-roll plays, mostly featuring Clark and Sinano. Gamecox struggled to defend the game, often leaving one of the two wide open. Sinano finished with 18 points.
South Carolina’s guards struggled to take advantage of Iowa’s defenders sagging too deep. Many onlookers yelled at the guards to “shoot the ball,” but often, when they did, they missed. South Carolina coach Dan Staley rotated in different players throughout the game, including Raven Johnson, Bree Hall, Kiera Fletcher and Olivia Thompson. But nothing worked, at least in the long run.
“They’re doing what every other team has done to us this season,” Fletcher said through tears. “So I think we’re definitely beating ourselves up.”
The only reliable scorer was Gia Cook, who used her speed and crafty triple moves to score 24 points to keep Gamecocks in the game. Boston, Cook and Bree Beal have been central to South Carolina’s dominance over the past four seasons.
Several seniors may return to South Carolina next season because the NCAA granted players an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic. But with the WNBA draft pending, Boston is widely considered the top pick.
Boston said he hasn’t made up his mind about the draft but looks set to offer Johnson the team captaincy, and said it felt like “the end of an era” when the buzzer sounded at the end of the game.
“After the game, I told her, ‘This is your team,'” Boston said. “You’ve been in the organization for two years now, and people are going to look to you for that leadership role.”
Staley said he would ask Boston to draft him.
“She’s got defenses played against her that won’t let her play,” he said, “and that’s tough to run. She’s great. She’s ready.
Iowa’s focus was evident throughout the game. The soldiers were quietly confident. While the team often talks about the impact of the crowd, it could have been playing in an empty stadium. Players glued to each other, to the ball, to their coaches, to the clock.
Even with a 4-point lead with 13 seconds left, Iowa stopped celebrating. They kept quiet with a 4-point lead and 2.9 seconds left. No premature celebration. They encountered an elder.
And then it happened. Iowa took down one of college basketball’s best players, and the championship trophy was a formality for a team. The stadium erupted. Iowa fans traveled across the country to see it happen. They proudly recreated the Carver-Hockey Arena in Iowa City as it was in Seattle during their team’s two regional games. Dallas became Carver South.
In Iowa’s locker room after the game, the players said they never doubted the final outcome. “I feel like we’re going to win the whole time,” said Jada Giamfi, a freshman.
“We’re here for a reason,” he added. “We are not a Cinderella story.”
Now you need to reset the panel. It was celebrated in the locker room, but only briefly, center Sharon Goodman said. The Hawkeyes have another game on Sunday. They need to be recovered and refueled. They have to watch the tape and get back to practice.
“We didn’t get this far to play in the national championship game,” Clark said. “We’re here to win it.”
Remy Tumin Contributed report.