Prior to the national semifinal Friday, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder acknowledged that her team wasn’t the favorite to advance to the Championship game, as they faced No. 1 South Carolina, which hadn’t lost a game in more than a year.
“We know we have an incredible challenge ahead of us, but at the same time, everybody loves an underdog,” Bluder said.
But against the undefeated defending champions, the Hawkeyes looked like anything but a No. 2 seed, as they took control of the game from tipoff, and calmly executed their way to a 77-73 win, to advance to the title game Sunday.
Caitlin Clark was the head of Iowa’s monster, scoring 41 points on 15-31 shooting, dishing 8 assists and grabbing 6 rebounds, while Monika Czinano added 18 points to stun the Gamecocks, who were never able to establish a rhythm in the face of their opponent’s continual disruption.
Hawkeye fans, who had traveled to Seattle en masse to watch their beloved team win the regional, had sat quietly, in tension, throughout the game as the two teams traded buckets and blows. When the final buzzer sounded, they erupted in joyous screams as Clark threw the ball toward the ceiling, and then cupped her hand to hear ear. The entire team embraced and jumped up and down at midcourt, as Gamecock players walked away silently.
“Everybody in America picked South Carolina, deservedly so,” Clark said. “But at the same time, the people in our locker room believed in us. That’s all you need is a belief in one another – a confidence in one another.”
“We’re clearly not as tall as them. We’re clearly not as athletic as them. But I think we’re a very, very skilled basketball team that loves one another, and that’s going to get you really, really far.”
The Gamecocks were ranked No. 1 all season, and were the formidable favorites to repeat as champions. But Iowa scored first in the matchup, and ran up their lead to as much as 9 twice, before ending the frame with a 22-13 lead.
Known for their offensive firepower, the Hawkeyes stood out on defense, as South Carolina All-American Aliyah Boston got into early foul trouble and remained scoreless for the first half. It was the deep Gamecock bench that came up big in the second quarter that allowed them to close the deficit to one point at the break.
In the second half, as had been true in the first half, the stingy South Carolina defense was no match for the fearless and physical pick and roll offense of Iowa – especially attacks by Clark and Czinano. Drive after drive, the Hawkeyes were able to penetrate and score. And every time the Gamecocks started to get their scoring touches back, their opponents had an answer.
Iowa lead by 4 going into the final 10 minutes, where the equally-large contingent of South Carolina fans also sat in strained silence, while the two teams traded blows. The Hawkeyes continued their poised assault, and had a 73-71 lead with under 30 seconds to play. A critical McKenna Warnock offensive rebound at the 18-second mark finally got the yellow and black crowd on their feet. Four Clark free throws sealed the win.
The Gamecocks lead for just 2:01. Zia Cooke scored 24 points, while Kamila Cardoso had 14 and Raven Johnson added 13.
Iowa will play for the National Championship against LSU, which beat Virginia Tech in the first semifinal game, 79-72. Alexis Morris lead the Tigers in a back-and-forth affair with 27 points, while Angel Reese scored 24 and grabbed 12 rebounds to tie an NCAA record with 33 double-doubles on the year.
Clark achieved several milestones during the game, as well. She notched 1,000 points in one season, as just the sixth player in NCAA history to do so, and she scored the most points in semifinal history. She became the first woman in Division I history to put up 40 ore more points in back-to-back games, and it was her 13th straight matchup with 30 or more points. Clark now has had a double-double in 89 consecutive games – the longest current active streak.
Bluder commended her assistant coaches for scouting South Carolina well. Players said they adapted their play accordingly.
“(I) was really coming out of the paint,” Czinano said. “I couldn’t do what I normally did and just post up down there. I had to come out and set ball screens and try to expose the screen and roll, and I think that worked out pretty well for us.”
Gamecock coach Dawn Staley said her team “didn’t feel pressure to win the game.”
“I thought we approached it – it felt like any other game,” she said. “We just didn’t perform. We didn’t make more plays than we needed to make, especially down the stretch. That hasn’t been us all season long.”
Staley acknowledged that Clark’s ability to see the court and make the right pass disrupted South Carolina’s flow.
“She was just so well-equipped with passing the basketball,” Staley said. “I thought we had a couple of miscommunications. And when you’re playing a player like Caitlin, you kind of lose your spacing out there, and you lose who’s good where.”
The Tigers advance to the first championship game in program history, while the Hawkeyes return for the first time in 30 years.
Bluder said her team will be ready, using the same methods that have served them all season long.
“We’ve taken a business-like approach to this every single step of the way, whether it’s the Big Ten Tournament, or during the season after a big win like (the one over) Indiana….it doesn’t matter,” Bluder said. “We turn the next page. It’s a veteran group, and they can handle it.”
LSU coach Kim Mulkey said guarding Clark will be a challenge.
“The things she’s capable of doing – one minute you think you’re going to guard her a certain way, then you watch the film and change your mind….’oh that’s not going to work,’” Mulkey said. “Hopefully by the end of (Saturday), we’ll come to some conclusion as a staff that we’re going to try this first, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try this.”
Mulkey had praise for the junior guard.
“That’s my first time to see her play in person, and I didn’t get to watch the game because I had to deal with y’all,” she told media members. “When I did get out there, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Gosh, she’s special. She’s special.”