There was plenty of debate the last few weeks about the best player this season in women’s college basketball. Was it USC’s Aliyah Boston or Iowa’s Caitlin Clark? Friday night in the national semi-finals in Dallas, there was no debate. Clark put on an offensive demonstration for the ages on the sports grandest stage with 41 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds in leading the Hawkeyes to a 77-73 win and into the national championship game Sunday afternoon against LSU.
Time and again Clark had an answer for a Gamecock charge, and never did the Gamecocks find a defensive answer for Clark who was 15-31 from the floor, including 5 three pointers, and 6-6 from the line.
Boston got into early foul trouble that sent her to the bench late in the first quarter. She sat the entire second quarter and finished the night with 8 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes. Zia Cooke attempted to pick up the slack playing all 40 minutes and leading the Gamecocks with 24 points.
Iowa definitely had a defensive gameplan to try to offset the Gamecocks’ decided height advantage inside. Much of the night, four Hawkeye defenders would back off the guards and have a foot in the lane, basically daring the Gamecocks to shoot the outside shot while clogging up the middle. The strategy worked as USC was only 4-20 from deep.
Clark was on point from the start scoring 11 first quarter points as the Hawkeye led 22-13 after the first ten minutes. The Gamecocks fought back in the second quarter making 10 of 20 shots and grabbing 13 rebounds and trailed at the half 38-37.
Iowa re-established some control of the game in the first three minutes of the third quarter building a nine point lead. The Gamecocks got back to within two points, but Monica Czinano hit a jumper in the lane with three seconds left in the quarter to give the Hawkeyes a 59-55 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Facing the end to their undefeated season and 42 game winning streak, the Gamecocks came out determined in the fourth quarter to turn the game their way. They did briefly. A three pointer by Raven Johnson and a layup by Boston gave USC their first lead of the second half at 60-59. That would be their final lead of the night.
Clark put the Hawkeyes back on top with a three-pointer, and then assisted on a layup by Czinano to give Iowa a four point lead. The Gamecocks got to within a point on another Johnson three with 4:25 to play, but then turned the ball over on three straight possessions when they had a chance to possibly get their hands around the game.
The Gamecocks still had one final chance to save themselves. Down 73-71 with just under a minute to play, USC forced Clark into missed long three. The rebound, however, came out long and was grabbed by McKenna Warnock. That was only the fifth offensive rebound for the Hawkeyes, but it was the biggest rebound of the game. Warnock got the ball to Clark who was fouled and made both free throws for a four point lead with 14 seconds to play.
Johnson made a second-chance jumper with nine seconds left to cut the lead to 75-73, but Clark was sent back to the line and sealed the win with a pair of free throws with eight seconds left. That completed a perfect 14-14 shooting performance from the line for Iowa.
Czinano complimented Clark with 18 points, most coming on rolls to the basket off assists from Clark. They were the only two Iowa scorers in double figures. Cooke led USC with 24 points and had 8 rebounds. Kamilla Cardoso added 14 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. Johnson, who made three of the Gamecocks’ four three-pointers, added 13 points off the bench.
The Gamecocks finish their season with a 36-1 record. Iowa is 31-6 going into Sunday’s title game.