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Mike Lopresti | | April 1, 2023

'She shines in the brightest lights': Caitlin Clark's masterpiece leads Iowa to the NCAA championship game

Caitlin Clark: 41 points against South Carolina in the Final Four

DALLAS —When it was over Friday night, she stood before her fan section . . . in a way before her state . . . actually before the whole of women’s college basketball, and raised her arms in victory, not to mention history.

“I’m just really, really thankful to be this position more than anything,” Caitlin Clark would say later of her thoughts. “Probably everybody in America picked South Carolina, deservedly so. They’ve been ranked No. 1 all year, they’ve won 42 straight basketball games. Why wouldn’t you pick them?”

March had just done what March does best. It took a game and produced a legend. For this night, one native daughter of Iowa owned the sport – lock, stock and South Carolina. Down went the Gamecocks, their winning streak, their plans to repeat. Done in by a guard with no fear and not many nerves, who led Iowa to its first national championship game in history and scored more points than anyone ever had in a Final Four semifinal.

“She doesn’t really surprise me anymore,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said. “I was worried about her getting tired. She had to play a lot of minutes. I think she’s the most phenomenal basketball player in America. I just don’t think there’s anybody like her.”

Not Friday night, certainly.

When South Carolina gave Clark a whisp of space — and sometimes even when the Gamecocks didn’t — she scored. Forty-one points when she was done, against a defense giving up only 51 points a game to everybody. “I think it is really frustrating whenever you’re trying to play your best defense and she’s still making shots,” teammate Kate Martin said afterward. “She’s really unguardable. I’ve seen it all. Obviously, we haven’t been on this stage before so I guess that’s new. She shines in the brightest lights. I’m not surprised one bit, actually.”

When South Carolina did not cover the pick-and-roll, Clark found her teammates. Eight assists. That meant she scored or passed for 23 of her team’s 28 field goals.

When the Gamecocks did get the rare lead, she answered. Twice, she buried 3-pointers just seconds after South Carolina had edged in front.

When the game was there to be taken, she seized it with both hands. Iowa’s last 13 points were from her. She matched the entire No. 1 ranked team point for point in the final eight minutes.

When the biggest game of her life — at least until Sunday — was there to be clinched with free throws, she made them. One after another after another after another. Four in the last 14 seconds, shooting them briskly, calmly and without the slightest hint of the stakes on the table. You got the idea pigs would fly over the cornfields of Iowa before she missed from the line.

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“They still made it tough on me,” Clark said of the South Carolina heavyweight she helped knock out. “They were all over my shorts. They created eight turnovers, a few were probably forced by myself. But at the same time I find confidence in the fact that I feel like this team has seen just about every defense you can face. I’m never intimidated going into a game. I don’t feel like these girls are ever intimidated.”

What was there to think after such a night?

“Holy crap was my first thought,” Martin said. “We just did what nobody else has been able to do in 42 games.”

What was there to say after a performance such as Clark’s?

“It’s so fun to play with her honestly,” said Monika Czinano, who had 18 points, the receiving end of many of Clark’s deft passes. “Getting to watch that every single day, getting to be a part of it, you can’t make it up. It’s one of the coolest things I’ll ever do in my life.”

And so it came to pass, the 2023 moment this tournament had awaited. “Tonight showed how much fun women’s basketball is,” Clark said.

This was the perfect storm. The team that nobody has been able to beat against the player nobody has been able to stop. The 36-0 champion, the free-shooting challenger. Not even Kim Mulkey’s wardrobe is this vibrant. “Everybody has been talking about this matchup for a really long time,” South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston had said the day before.

They approached one another at the center circle, South Carolina in white, the defensive juggernaut that had not allowed any opposing player to score more than 25 points any of its 42-game winning streak, Iowa in black, including Clark, who had topped 25 points 22 times this season. She had put 41 points on Louisville just five days earlier to get here. The Gamecocks had not allowed nine teams to score that many points this season.

No wonder the anticipation, the nearly 20,000 in the house. Even though, as South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had noted, her team was on a mission to complete a season without blemish, and that superseded any particular opponent. “They want to win it all,” she said of her Gamecocks. “I don’t think they really care who it is.”

Still, it was a marquee event with huge letters. So the opening tip went up in a buzz and . . .

We know what happened next. A 77-73 Iowa victory that ended South Carolina’s repeat run, denying a veteran team its happy ending. “When that buzzer went off,” Boston said. “It was kind of just an end of an era, it feels like.”

The Gamecocks had wielded many of their primary weapons. They dominated rebounding 49-25. They attacked with the usual depth, outscoring the Hawkeyes 38-6 in bench points. But Boston struggled with foul trouble and scored only eight points. And their most feared asset of all — their defense — could not slow down Iowa. Especially the Hawkeye wearing No. 22.

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“We put a lot of different people on her,” Staley said. “I thought we tried to tire her out a little bit for four quarters by having our point guards pressure her. I thought she tired out a little bit. But not enough to give us an edge.”

Other Hawkeyes helped close the deal. Czinano with her 18 points, Gabbie Marshall with her three steals, McKenna Warnock with a crucial late offensive rebound that might have been a dagger – rather ironic given how South Carolina had 26 offensive rebounds to Iowa’s five. But the Hawkeyes got the one they needed most.

“I might score the most points,” Clark said. “But at the end of the day, we aren’t anywhere without my teammates. Everyone did their role and that’s what our team is about.

“All we did was believe, and go out and achieve it.”

Next is LSU on Sunday. The Tigers have never been in a championship game, either. The women’s tournament has gotten as screwy as the men’s. But for the moment, the Iowa women have the face of March.

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