Many thought that South Carolina winning the national championship this year was a forgone conclusion. Louisiana State’s coach Kim Mulkey told reporters after L.S.U.’s round-of-8 win that South Carolina was “going to be there” in the championship game.
South Carolina had been undefeated, was dominating teams all season and was the reigning champion. But the Gamecocks had not played a player like Caitlin Clark.
On Friday night, Clark and Iowa managed to do what no other team has done, downing South Carolina, 77-73, to make their way to the program’s first championship game — delivering the upset of all upsets in a March that has been filled with them.
Instead it was Iowa, perhaps understandably, that celebrated like it had won the championship when the game was over. Clark, who finished with 41 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds, ran around the arena with a hand to her ear before stopping and raising both of her arms as Iowa’s white-knuckled fans roared. The team hugged and cheered at midcourt, and the players sang the school’s fight song with fans.
One fan during the game prominently waved a sign that read, “In Clark we trust.”
“Everybody in America picked South Carolina, and deservedly so,” Clark said, adding: “But at the same time, the people in our locker room believed in us, and that’s all you need is a belief in one another.”
Iowa will play Louisiana State in the title game on Sunday afternoon. The third-seeded Tigers advanced to their first N.C.A.A. final in program history with a 79-72 win over Virginia Tech earlier Friday night. Louisiana State pulled away late in a mostly back-and-forth game thanks to a one-two punch of Angel Reese and Alexis Morris that proved too much for the Hokies.
Reese produced her 33rd triple-double this season, tying an N.C.A.A. record, with 24 points and 12 rebounds; Morris led all scorers with 27 points.
As that game ended, the American Airlines Center quickly filled for what many fans and observers of the sport considered the main event. Spectators wearing black, gold and garnet were here to see the most anticipated college basketball matchup in either N.C.A.A. Division I Final Four, with the stifling, unbeaten South Carolina team against Clark, who was widely considered the player of the year.
“Tonight showed how fun women’s basketball is,” Clark said. “I’m sure so many 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 got its star forward, Aliyah Boston, into early foul trouble. She played just eight minutes and was scoreless in the first half, but Iowa led by only 1 at the break, mostly because of South Carolina’s relentless depth. The lead seemed like it would evaporate quickly with Boston back in the second half.
Iowa’s strategy of a zone defense, dropping Clark from the top of the zone and on to Boston or any post player that got the ball, proved to be effective. Clark’s help defense and center Monika Czinano’s physicality forced 15 South Carolina turnovers. On the offensive end, Iowa picked apart South Carolina’s defense with pick-and-roll plays, mostly featuring Clark and Czinano. The Gamecocks struggled to defend the play, often leaving one of the two wide open. Czinano finished with 18 points.
South Carolina’s guards struggled to take advantage of Iowa’s defenders sagging so deeply off them. Many spectators yelled at the guards to “shoot the ball,” but often, when they did, they missed. South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley rotated in different players throughout the game, including Raven Johnson, Bree Hall, Kierra Fletcher and Olivia Thompson. But nothing seemed to be effective, at least for long.
“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.”
The only guard that could score reliably was Zia Cooke, who used her speed and crafty dribble moves to score 24 points and keep the Gamecocks in the game. Boston, Cooke and Beal have been the core of South Carolina’s dominance over the past four seasons.
Many of the seniors can return to South Carolina next season because the N.C.A.A. granted players an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the W.N.B.A. draft also awaits, with Boston widely considered to be the top selection.
Boston said she was undecided about the draft but seemed to pass the mantle of team leader to Johnson, and said that when the buzzer sounded at the end of the game, it felt like “the end of an era.”
“After the game, I said to her, ‘This is your team,’” Boston said. “You’ve been in the system for two years now, people are going to be looking up to you for that leadership role.”
Staley said that she would tell Boston to go to the draft.
“There are defenses that played against her that won’t allow her to play her game,” she said, “and it’s hard to officiate that. She’s great. She’s ready.”
Iowa’s focus throughout the game was palpable. The players held a calm confidence. While the team frequently talks about the impact of the crowd, it could have been playing in an empty stadium. The players were glued on one another, on the ball, on their coaches, on the clock.
Even with a 4-point lead with 13 seconds left, Iowa held off on celebrating. They stayed similarly quiet 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 took down one of college basketball’s juggernauts, a team for whom a championship trophy seemed to be a formality. The stadium erupted. Iowa’s fandom had traveled around the nation to see this happen. They proudly recreated their home arena — Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City — as they had in Seattle during their team’s two regional games. Dallas had become Carver South.
In Iowa’s locker room after the game, players said they never had any doubt about the final result. “I feel like we were going to win the whole time,” said Jada Gyamfi, a freshman.
“We’re here for a reason,” she added. “We’re not a Cinderella story.”
Now the team has to reset. It 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 tape and get back to practice.
“We didn’t come this far just to play in the national championship game,” Clark said. “We’re here to win it.”
Remy Tumin contributed reporting.