TEAM OF DESTINY
DALLAS — Iowa coach Lisa Bluder had been bringing it up all season long.
She especially brought it up on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“It was even written on the board (in the locker room),” said Iowa Addison O’Grady, referring to the adopted “Why Not Us?” catchphrase the Hawkeyes had been routinely uttering throughout what has emerged as arguably the most historic campaign in school history.
Much to their delight, many of the Iowa players once again were seen chanting, “Why Not Us?,” this time after the Hawkeyes had pulled off their grandest win of the season Friday night, 77-73, in a highly-anticipated Final Four clash over the mighty South Carolina Gamecocks, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed who entered the Big Dance as heavy favorites to win back-to-back national titles.
An announced sellout crowd of 19,288 in the American Airlines Center turned out to witness No. 2 seed Iowa take down a more physical and taller South Carolina squad to advance to Sunday’s national title game against No. 3 seed LSU (at 2:30 CDT on ABC).
Just as she had done in Iowa’s Elite Eight win against Miami, Caitlin Clark caught fire and never let up, even against the reigning national champs.
The 2023 Associated Press National Player of the Year registered a game-best 41 points on 15-of-31 shooting in 38-plus minutes, including connecting on 5-of-17 shots from 3-point range to help propel the Hawkeyes to their first appearance in the national championship game.
Clark, in fact, was virtually unstoppable from the outset, draining several of her shots from well beyond the arc, which enabled Iowa to keep a more physical and athletic Gamecocks team at bay and ultimately complete its biggest upset in school history.
“South Carolina…unbelieve basketball team,” Bluder said. “I’m so proud of my women. They’re the only ones who believed. I don’t think anyone, except for those wearing black and gold, believed we were going to win. So the women in that circle, we believed and we prepared all week as if we were going to win this game.”
As the game’s final seconds evaporated, Clark, demonstrating her conventional swagger, heaved the ball in the air in pure jubilation as women’s college basketball’s most-celebrated player took victory laps around a court where she manufactured the second-highest scoring output in Women’s Final Four history (Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes scored 47 points in the 1993 national championship).
END OF AN ERA
Moments after the game, the proverbial “Why Not Us?” chants resurfaced amongst Clark’s teammates, as well as the throng of Hawkeye faithful in attendance.
“All the credit goes to my teammates,” Clark told reporters after scoring 41 points in consecutive postseason games. “They find me in positions where they think I am most effective, and they do it game in and game out all the time. The confidence that they have in me is quite unreal. I’m just so proud to be on this time.”
In extending its undefeated streak to nine consecutive games, Iowa (31-6) wasted little time dictating the pace against the opposition, limiting South Carolina (36-1) to an uncharacteristic 33 percent shooting in the opening frame and racing to a 22-13.
For the previously unbeaten Gamecocks, it didn’t help that Aliyah Boston (eight points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes), a three-time First-Team All-American and last year’s AP National Player of the Year, was whistled for her second foul at the 1:38 mark of the opening quarter, forcing South Carolina coach Dawn Staley to bench her star player for the entire second quarter.
Fortunately for the Gamecocks — led by Zia Cooke’s 24 points on 11-of-21 shooting in 40 minutes in her final collegiate game — they managed to rally with Boston sitting and assume their first lead of the game, 32-31, on Laeticia Amihere’s layoff off an Iowa turnover. Despite a lethargic first-quarter showing, South Carolina would enter halftime only down, 38-37.
But in the second half, Clark and Co. showed no signs of fatigue — much less a letdown — in a back-and-forth affair that wasn’t decided until the game’s waning moments.
With the Hawkeyes in front, 73-71, with 21 seconds remaining in regulation, Clark attempted a potential game-clinching 3-point basket that somehow ricocheted off the rim and into the waiting arms of McKenna Warnock, her lone offensive board of the game and one that couldn’t have come at a better time.
“There was one o-board that mattered the most and that was Kenna Warnock’s,” said Clark, who connected on four free throws that completed Iowa’s upset bid and denied South Carolina’s bid for back-to-back national titles. “That kind of sealed the deal for us and we were able to make our free throws. So yeah, I think I score the most points, but we aren’t anything without my teammates, and I truly mean that.”
Besides Clark, who accounted for 53 percent of Iowa’s offense in the national semifinals, Monika Czinano was the lone other Hawkeye to score in double figures with 18 points.
South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso filled in nicely with Boston benched with foul trouble, finishing with 14 points and 14 rebounds off the bench, and Raven Johnson added 13 points for the Gamecocks, whose previous defeat came on March 6 of last year, a 64-62 loss to Kentucky in Southeastern Conference championship.
In the first national semifinal game on Friday:
No. 3 seed LSU got a game-high 27 points from fifth-year senior Alexis Morris, 24 points from Angel Reese, and the opportunistic Tigers erased a 12-point third quarter deficit to eliminate top-seeded Virginia Tech, 79-72.
LSU (33-2) kept its season alive, thanks in large part to a masterful fourth-quarter display that saw the Tigers manufacture a key 11-0 spurt to regain a lead they would not relinquish.
With the win, LSU advanced to its first national championship appearance in Kim Mulkey’s second season as head coach.
Elizabeth Kitley scored a team-high 18 points to pace four Virginia Tech players in double figures. But that wasn’t enough as the Hokies (31-5) — who lead by as many as 12 midway through the third — struggled at the worst possible time and ultimately witnessed their winning streak end at 15 games.
Andre Johnson is the award-winning Founder and Publisher for Making Headline News. A 2000 graduate of the University of Memphis School of Journalism and a former staff reporter of sports for the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division from Dallas, Texas. To reach Johnson, send email to email@example.com or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist or Instagram at @makingheadlinenews.
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