Winning the South Carolina national championship this year was thought by many to be a foregone conclusion. Louisiana State coach Kim Mulkey told reporters after LSU’s round of 8 win that South Carolina was “going to be there” in the championship game.
South Carolina had been undefeated, dominated teams all season, and was the reigning champion. But the Gamecocks hadn’t played a player like caitlin-clark.
On Friday night, Clark and Iowa managed to do what no other team has done, defeat South Carolina, 77-73, to reach the program’s first championship game, delivering the surprise of all surprises in a march that has been full of them.
Instead, it was Iowa, perhaps understandably, celebrating like they had won the championship when the game ended. Clark, who finished with 41 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds, ran around the arena with one hand to his ear before stopping and raising both arms as the enthusiastic Iowa fans roared. The team hugged and cheered at half court, and the players sang the school’s fight song with the fans.
A fan during the game waved a sign that read, “In Clark We Trust.”
“Everyone in America chose South Carolina, and for good reason,” Clark said, adding: “But at the same time, the people in our locker room believed in us, and that’s all you need is to believe in each other. ”.
Iowa will play Louisiana State in the title game on Sunday afternoon. The third-seeded Tigers advanced to their first NCAA Finals in program history with a 79-72 win over Virginia Tech on Friday night. Louisiana State pulled away late in a mostly back-and-forth game thanks to a double whammy by Angel Reese and Alexis Morris that proved too much for the Hokies.
Reese produced his 33rd triple-double this season, tying an NCAA record, with 24 points and 12 rebounds; Morris led all scorers with 27 points.
By the time that game ended, the American Airlines Center filled up quickly for what many fans and sports watchers considered the main event. Spectators dressed in black, gold and maroon were here to see the most anticipated college basketball matchup in the NCAA Division I Final Four, featuring the sweltering and undefeated South Carolina team against Clark, who was widely considered the player of the year.
“Tonight showed how much fun women’s basketball is,” Clark said. “I’m sure a lot of people wish this was a series of seven. That would be really, really fun.”
For much of the first half, Iowa dominated South Carolina and put their star forward, Aliyah Boston, in early foul trouble. He played just eight minutes and didn’t score in the first half, but Iowa led just 1 at halftime, mostly due to South Carolina’s relentless depth. It looked like the lead would quickly evaporate with Boston in the second half.
Iowa’s strategy of a zone defense, dropping Clark from the top of the zone and onto Boston or whatever post player received the ball, proved effective. Clark’s help defense and the physicality of center Monika Czinano forced 15 South Carolina turnovers. On the offensive end, Iowa shredded the South Carolina defense with pick-and-roll plays, mostly with Clark and Czinano. The Gamecocks struggled to defend the play, often leaving one of the two wide open. Czinano finished with 18 points.
The South Carolina guards had trouble taking advantage of the Iowa defenders’ slump so deep. Many spectators yelled at the guards to “shoot the ball,” but often when they did, they missed. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley rotated different players throughout the game, including Raven Johnson, Bree Hall, Kierra Fletcher, and Olivia Thompson. But nothing seemed to be effective, at least for a long time.
“They were doing the same thing that every other team has done to use this season,” Fletcher said through tears. “So I definitely think we beat ourselves up.”
The only guard who could reliably score was Zia Cooke, who used her speed and clever dribbling moves to score 24 points and keep the Gamecocks in the game. Boston, Cooke and Brea Beal have been the core of South Carolina’s dominance for the past four seasons.
Many of the seniors may return to South Carolina next season because the NCAA gave players an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the WNBA draft awaits, too, with Boston widely considered the top pick.
Boston said it was undecided about the draft, but seemed to pass the role of team leader to Johnson, saying that when the buzzer rang at the end of the game, it felt like “the end of an era.”
“After the game, I told him, ‘This is your team,’” Boston said. “You’ve been in the system for two years, people will look up to you for that leadership position.”
Staley said he would tell Boston to go to the draft.
“There are defenses that played against him that don’t allow him to play his game,” he said, “and it’s hard to officiate that. She’s great. She is ready.
Iowa’s focus throughout the game was palpable. The players maintained a quiet confidence. While the team frequently talks about the shock of the crowd, it could have been playing in an empty stadium. The players were glued to each other, to the ball, to their coaches, to the clock.
Even with a 4-point lead with 13 seconds remaining, Iowa held back from celebrating. They held their own equally cool with a 4-point lead and 2.9 seconds left. There was no premature celebration. They were facing a giant.
And then it happened. Iowa eliminated one of the giants of college basketball, a team for which a championship trophy seemed like a formality. The stadium exploded. The Iowa fandom had traveled across the country to see this happen. They proudly recreated their home arena, Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, as they had done in Seattle during their team’s two regional games. Dallas had become Carver South.
In the Iowa locker room after the game, the players said they never had any doubts about the final result. “I feel like we were going to win every time,” said freshman Jada Gyamfi.
“We are here for a reason,” he added. “We are not a Cinderella story.”
Now the computer has to restart. It was celebrated in the locker room, but only briefly, center Sharon Goodman said. The Hawkeyes have another game on Sunday. They need to recover and refuel. They need to watch the tape and practice again.
“We didn’t get this far just to play in the national championship,” Clark said. “We are here to win it.”
remy tumin contributed reporting.