Lisa Bluder locked eyes with her starting five, who have reinvented senior moxie, and delivered a brief but potent statement before they entered the Final Four court.
“You’re capable of doing this,” Bluder said.
And she got it right.
Iowa’s effort was flawless, and its game plan was spot-on in order to defeat the basketball behemoth that is South Carolina. More than anything, though, these Hawkeyes never faltered in their conviction that this was their time to take.
Iowa did it in thrilling fashion, overcoming South Carolina’s height advantage with an unrelenting pick-and-roll offence and plenty of Caitlin Clark highlights that will live on in Hawkeye lore. The total score on Friday was 77-73, sending Iowa into Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. game. Bluder’s team will face an LSU team that beat Virginia Tech in the first national quarterfinal contest (ABC-TV).
South Carolina’s 42-game winning run was snapped by Iowa. The Gamecocks completed the season with a record of 36-1. The Hawkeyes finish the season with a 31-6 record.
South Carolina had little experience with the nervous championship intensity that comes in when your season abruptly swings in the balance, despite all of the Gamecocks’ honours and focus. If the Hawkeyes could just get South Carolina to that stage late in Friday’s game, Iowa could take its no-loss momentum all the way to the finish line.
That is precisely what Iowa did.
The Hawkeyes led almost the entire game, only momentarily relinquishing its second-half advantage early in the fourth quarter before regaining it. When it came time to triumph, Iowa had three-quarters faith that it could complete what few believed any team could do.
Despite her 3-pointers not dropping at the rate she prefers, Iowa’s all-around player Clark demonstrated her development and basketball knowledge with blow-by runs and opportune passes.
But, when it came down to it, two easy free throws were all that stood between Iowa and a party. With 8.1 seconds left, the final two of her game-high 41 points swished through the hoop, giving Iowa a 77-73 advantage. That was enough to put an end to it.
South Carolina’s perfect record and supremacy at the summit of the national standings couldn’t save the Gamecocks on this night. As a remarkable season came to an end, desperation spilled from their bench.
Any doubts about whether the occasion would overpower these Final Four rookies were dispelled in a matter of minutes.
It was critical for the Hawkeyes to escape an early deficit against a South Carolina squad that seeks to effectively drain the energy out of every contest. The Gamecocks haven’t played much from behind this season, but Iowa forced them to do so for nearly the entire first half.
With Aliyah Boston out early due to two first-quarter penalties, Clark and the Hawkeyes saw an opportunity to strike.
Clark, the national player of the year, scored 19 points and dished out six assists in the first half, hitting three three-pointers while scorching South Carolina on the high screen-and-roll with mostly wide-open passes to Monika Czinano.
Still, the Gamecocks make it difficult to relax. Before the halfway whistle, Iowa had a nine-point advantage. South Carolina appeared poised for a comeback after taking a 60-59 lead early in the fourth quarter.
With Clark at the helm, this Iowa squad is constructed differently. There is a distinct sharpness, a distinct conviction, and a distinct assurance.
And it could be enough to propel Iowa to a national championship.