Mar 31, 2023; Dallas, TX, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) attempts a three-point basket against South Carolina Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson (25) in the second half in semifinals of the women's Final Four of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
DALLAS -- The crucial difference between No. 1 South Carolina and No. 2 Iowa on Friday night in the Final Four is that one team had Caitlin Clark and the other did not.
Clark, the consensus national player of the year, piled up 41 points as the Hawkeyes slayed the undefeated Gamecocks 77-73, ending South Carolina's national title defense in front of an announced sold-out crowd at the American Airlines Center.
Iowa (31-6) is going to the national championship game for the first time ever, where it will face No. 3 LSU on Sunday. The Tigers beat Virginia Tech in the earlier national semifinal game on Friday. It's the first time since 2011 that no No. 1 seed made the national championship game.
"I'm so proud of my women because I think they're the only people that really believed," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "I don't think anybody else, unless you were in black and gold, believed that we were going to win that game."
Clark shot 15-for-31 from the floor and also had eight assists and six rebounds. Monika Czinano added 18 points for the Hawkeyes, who won their ninth game in a row.
"I think the biggest thing is knowing how much my teammates trust me," Clark said. "I was given the ball in kind of the biggest moments of the game on the biggest stage, but also at the same time, my teammates really came through and played huge minutes."
South Carolina (36-1) was dealt its first loss of the season and saw its 42-game winning streak come to an end. In what was presumably her final game in a South Carolina uniform, Aliyah Boston finished with eight points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Zia Cooke led the Gamecocks in scoring with 24 points. Kamilla Cardoso added 14 points and 14 rebounds, and Raven Johnson scored 13 points.
"Iowa had a terrific game plan, and we didn't get it done," Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said.
Clark's scoring total Friday pushed her past the 1,000-point mark on the season. Only five other players in the history of women's college basketball have accomplished that feat.
The Hawkeyes punched first. To open the game, Clark scored on two layups and dished out two assists as Iowa took an 8-2 lead. The Hawkeyes led by as many as nine points in the opening frame, but South Carolina charged back in the second quarter to take a brief, 32-31 lead after a 9-2 run.
Iowa took a 38-37 advantage into halftime. Boston played just eight minutes for South Carolina in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. Cooke kept the team in the game by scoring 18 points in the first 20 minutes.
But while the Gamecocks kept fighting back, they never quite figured out how to stop Clark. She either shot over the South Carolina defense, drove through it or passed around it. South Carolina threw a whole stable of defenders at Clark: Kierra Fletcher, Johnson, Laeticia Amihere, Bree Hall and Brea Beal all spent minutes guarding the sharpshooter.
"She was just so well equipped with passing the basketball. I thought we had a couple of miscommunications. And then when you're playing a player like Caitlin, you kind of lose your spacing out there," Staley said. "I thought she tired out just a little bit, but not enough to give us an edge."
Every time South Carolina made a run, Clark was there with an answer. The Gamecocks again took a brief one-point lead in the early moments of the fourth quarter on a layup from Boston, but Clark responded by swishing a 3-pointer and then feeding an assist to Czinano to push Iowa's lead back to two possessions.
Clark scored Iowa's final 10 points in the last six minutes to seal the victory.