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

Caitlin Clark believed in Lisa Bluder. That’s why Iowa is in the title game.

Hawkeyes vs. LSU Tigers, 3:30 p.m. Eastern (ABC)

Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder came up with a masterful game plan as the Hawkeyes upset South Carolina in the Final Four on Friday in Dallas. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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DALLAS — Lisa Bluder couldn’t help but laugh at the question. Her Iowa Hawkeyes had just advanced to the first national championship game in program history, but now she sat on a platform talking about fashion.

There was a red carpet leading into American Airlines Center before Friday’s Final Four games, and the coaches in Dallas fit in perfectly. South Carolina’s Dawn Staley seems to have a Louis Vuitton representative on speed dial. LSU’s Kim Mulkey has a designer for her over-the-top jackets that feature feathers, sparkles, flowers and often hot pink. Even Virginia Tech’s Kenny Brooks had people talking about his joggers.

Bluder and associate head coach Jan Jensen seemed to get in on the act with matching black jackets with gold buttons. The 23rd-year coach, however, said it was just a coincidence.

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

“Everybody else has fashion people and makeup people,” Bluder said. “I’ve got a Revlon flat iron in my hotel room. So that’s about as far as I go.”

Bluder may be unassuming in the fashion department, but she pulled off the coaching job of the tournament in the 77-73 win over the Gamecocks, breaking the 42-game winning streak of the defending national champions. Iowa indeed was the beneficiary of a legendary 41-point performance from Caitlin Clark, but Bluder constantly ran a variety of ball-screen actions that ended in good looks for Clark or a screener slipping toward the rim for opportunities at the basket. On defense, the Hawkeyes packed the paint and dared South Carolina to beat them from beyond the arc. Mulkey noted that Clark “never really guarded anybody” and was allowed to just roam and be disruptive.

The Gamecocks never fully countered, and Iowa accomplished what no one else has this season.

“That’s the reason I came here, to be in this moment right now because I believed in Coach Bluder,” Clark said. “I believed in what she could do. I think the thing that’s lost is I get coached hard every single day.”

Bluder has struck a harmonious balance with these Hawkeyes and instilled a belief in themselves throughout the roster. Having the Associated Press player of the year certainly helps, but the Hawkeyes have embraced a why-not-us mantra. And theirs is a homegrown roster with just one transfer in the rotation and all but one player that calls the Midwest home.

Iowa’s upset of South Carolina draws record viewers as new TV deal looms

Now the Big Ten leader in regular season conference wins will coach for a national title against Mulkey, who has three championship rings. The win over South Carolina knocked out Staley, who has a pair of championships on her résumé.

“Her ability to put so much confidence in each individual player and make us all realize that we’re all so important, no matter our role,” Iowa forward McKenna Warnock said.

Center Monika Czinano added: “She truly is like a mother figure to all of us. … No matter how harsh she ever is or no matter what the message is, you know, it’s coming from love.”

A shot at a national title is the culmination of a long basketball journey. The Marion, Iowa, native played six-on-six games before starring at Northern Iowa, then went on to coaching stops at St. Ambrose and Drake.

That’s a lifetime within the state, something she is immensely proud of. Bluder reminisced about playing in front of 200 people at Northern Iowa — “if you count my husband twice” — compared with playing in front of a sellout crowd Friday and a national television audience.

“My first job, I drove the van, and I had to recruit my husband to drive the other one sometimes,” Bluder said. “We stopped at a rest stop one time, and I left a player there. It was just a different time. I’m so glad that I got to grow up during this time.”

The last time Iowa lost was an embarrassing 96-68 drubbing at Maryland on Feb. 21 in which the Hawkeyes faced an unexpected box-and-one defense specifically designed to take Clark away. Bluder thanked Coach Brenda Frese for forcing the team to learn and continue to grow from that point. She took the blame for not having her team prepared that night, but that hasn’t been the case since.

“I’ve been watching her evolve as a coach for a long time,” analyst Debbie Antonelli said. “When you get to this stage, it just validates everything that you thought would work with your right personnel. It’s not always just the basketball stuff. It’s the leadership and the communication skills that come with it. When you’ve been coaching for 38 years and you’ve had so many opportunities to hit or miss, now she’s hitting.”

So Iowa goes into the national final Sunday against an LSU team also participating in its first championship game. Whereas the Hawkeyes are locally sourced with a longtime coach, the Tigers feature Mulkey in her second season in Baton Rouge with a roster heavy on transfers.

The Hawkeyes have one more chance to say, “Why not us?”

“I know a lot of people lost a lot of money in Vegas and elsewhere last night,” Bluder said. “Not a lot of people betting on the Hawkeyes. So we’re just going to keep believing. We talk a lot about that, like we’re not giving up.”