Iowa, South Carolina to rematch in national championship game

Kate Martin is fouled by Aaliyah Edwards in the first half. Morry Gash/AP

If this season is eventually remembered as the year women’s basketball broke out, it’s NCAA Tournament may be dubbed the rematch round.

Iowa squeaked by traditional power house UConn, 71-69, in Friday night’s second semifinal, to set up a date in the Championship game with two-time champion South Carolina. Earlier, the Gamecocks handily beat NC State, 78-59, to earn the right to meet the Hawkeyes in what will be a rematch of last year’s semifinal, in which Iowa stunned the two-time champs in the upset.

Hannah Stuelke lead the Hawkeyes against the Huskies with 23 points, and Caitlin Clark finished with 21.

Nika Muhl spearheaded the UConn defense by locking down the nation’s top scorer in Clark in the first half. Clark, who averages almost 30 points per game, was held to just 6 points on 7-18 shooting, including 3-11 from the three-point line. The Huskies also forced 12 turnovers, as they stole the ball 11 times to take a 32-26 advantage into the locker room at the break.

Clark ignited in the third quarter, and Iowa rallied to tie the score 5 different times in the half. With 9 seconds remaining, UConn forced a turnover. But as Paige Bueckers was trying to run to catch the inbound ball for the potentially game-winning shot, teammate Aaliyah Edwards was called for a moving screen on Gabbie Marshall.

Clark was then fouled, and missed her second free throw. The Huskies called a timeout, but on the ensuing play, Sydney Affolter came away with the offensive board for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa players said that despite the sloppy play, they weren’t panicked.

“We went into the locker room at halftime and it wasn’t like, oh, come on, you’ve got to make shots,” Clark said. “It was, no, stop turning the ball over and you’re going to be perfectly fine. We knew at some point out shots would go down.”

Many criticized the call on Edwards, and in the moment, UConn coach Geno Auriemma was livid on the bench. After the game, however, neither he nor his players used the call as an excuse for losing.

“I mean, there’s probably an illegal screen call you could make on every single possession. I just know there were three or four of them called on us, and I don’t think there were any called on them,” Auriemma said. “So I guess we just gotta get better on not setting illegal screens.”

Edwards and Bueckers each scored 17 for the Huskies, who had just a six-player rotation after an injury-plagued season.

Last weekend’s Elite 8 saw the Hawkeyes beat LSU, in a rematch of last year’s championship game. In facing South Carolina again this year, Iowa takes on a team that is 37-0. Hawkeye coach Lisa Bluder said she was looking forward to it.

“Everybody’s pretty good at this level,” she said. When you’re getting into the Final Four, you’re going to go against good coaches, and you’re going to have great players. We’ll just be excited to give it a try tomorrow.”

Saniya Rivers drives between Sania Feagin and Ashlyn Watkins in the first half. Yahoo Sports photo.

In the first game of the night, the Gamecocks and the Final Four first-timers Wolfpack played evenly throughout the first half. In the third quarter, South Carolina outscored their opponents, 29-6, on expert ball movement, and never looked back.

Kamilla Cardoso lead three Gamecocks in double figures with 22 points and 11 rebounds.

The Gamecocks have had an exceptional season, after losing five starters last year. Picked sixth in the AP preseason poll, they spent the rest of the season in the No. 1 spot, winning some close games along the way.

After their win against NC State, coach Dawn Staley made it clear what the goal is for her team on Sunday.

“I don’t want to lose. I don’t want our season to end in any way, except the way I envisioned, and that’s winning a national championship,” she said. “And when you can put your play behind your vision, it makes a beautiful memory.”

The national championship game tips at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN/ABC.