NCAA women's tournament • Analysis
What comes next for Caitlin Clark is the hardest part
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Caitlin Clark and Iowa stun South Carolina to reach national title game

Hawkeyes 77, Gamecocks 73

Caitlin Clark scored 41 points to lead Iowa past South Carolina in the Final Four on Friday in Dallas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
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DALLAS – Caitlin Clark strode to the free throw line with 8.1 seconds remaining and a trip to the national championship game within her grasp. A pair of foul shots went down effortlessly as she snapped her wrist and Iowa took a four-point lead against undefeated defending champion South Carolina.

Moments later, Clark glared at the Iowa fans in the crowd, extended her arms and screamed, “Let’s go!” She hurled the basketball in the air as the final buzzer sounded, and later leaped over a table to share an embrace with family in the stands.

The Hawkeyes advanced to the national title game for the first time in school history with a 77-73 victory in front of a full house at American Airlines Center.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s incandescent star, was everything against South Carolina

Iowa (31-6) will face LSU in the national championship game Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

“Probably everybody in America picked South Carolina, deservedly so,” Clark said. “They’ve been ranked No. 1 all year. They’ve won 42 straight basketball games. Why wouldn’t you pick them?

“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.”

Everyone in the building knew Clark had been the most dangerous player in college basketball this season, but it didn’t matter — even against arguably the best defense in the country. South Carolina had no answer for the player Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder calls the “face of women’s basketball.” Clark scored 16 of Iowa’s 18 fourth-quarter points and assisted on the other basket to end the Gamecocks’ 42-game winning streak.

Clark, coming off a 41-point triple-double in the Elite Eight, led all scorers again with 41 points to go along with eight assists and six rebounds. She is the only player in NCAA tournament history to record back-to-back 40-point games, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Teammate Monika Czinano finished with 18 points as the pair were the only two Hawkeyes to score in double digits.

“[Clark] was on point,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. “I mean, she was everything that we saw on film. She was everything, like assists, points, turnovers, all of them. She ran the gamut of who she is as a player, and she threaded the needle.

“[Czinano] was the one that put them over the top with her contributions, because we had everybody else in check.”

Iowa shot 61.8 percent from two-point range, the highest for any team against South Carolina in more than four years. Bluder explained that the Hawkeyes had success in ball-screen actions, so they emphasized that throughout the game. South Carolina (36-1) shot just 39 percent from the field and 20 percent from beyond the arc.

Zia Cooke did the heavy lifting for the Gamecocks with 24 points and eight rebounds while Kamilla Cardoso added 14 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. Aliyah Boston was held to just eight points and 10 rebounds and said afterward that she hasn’t made a decision about entering the WNBA draft. She is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick if she comes out and Staley said she would advise Boston to head to the pros.

“When that buzzer went off, it was kind of just an end of an era,” said Boston, who broke out in tears talking about Staley. “We had a special group, and that’s kind of what it felt like.”

Iowa’s magical season continues after their second trip to the Final Four and with a program-record 31 wins. The Hawkeyes were the highest-scoring team in the nation, thanks in large part to Clark, the two-time Big Ten player of the year and this year’s Associated Press national player of the year.

The previously unbeaten Gamecocks featured the No. 3 scoring defense in the country and ranked No. 2 in rebounding. They dominated on the boards Friday night with a 49-25 advantage, but it wasn’t enough.

Boston was named the Naismith defensive player of the year for the second consecutive year and is just the 10th player to be named first-team AP all-American three times. Staley was named the Naismith coach of the year for the third time in the past four seasons.

Iowa opened the game on an 8-2 run for an early advantage as Clark got loose early. Multiple defenders got the assignment of chasing her, and it didn’t matter. Clark got to the basket for layups, pulled up deep for threes and set up teammates for easy baskets. The Hawkeyes led 22-13 after the first quarter.

“She doesn’t really surprise me anymore,” Bluder said of Clark. “I think she’s the most phenomenal basketball player in America. I just don’t think there’s anybody like her.

“In so many regards, not only scoring, but passing the ball, handling the ball. She had the ball in her hands almost all the time tonight against some pretty good defensive players. And then it’s her mentality. I think that’s what’s so special.”

The storyline coming into the game was Clark versus Boston, but South Carolina’s star picked up two fouls in the first quarter and sat the rest of the half. She didn’t score in the first 20 minutes. The true battle was Clark versus Cooke, a third team all-American who scored nine of the Gamecocks’ 13 first-quarter points and went into halftime with 18.

South Carolina adjusted in the second quarter and took its first lead of the game at 32-31 with 3:09 left in the second quarter. The Gamecocks began taking advantage of their superior size as Cardoso (6-foot-7) delivered strong minutes with Boston on the bench. Eleven offensive rebounds gave South Carolina additional opportunities and they went into halftime with 13 second-chance points and trailed 38-37.

South Carolina led for just 2:01 throughout the entire game.