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40 minutes away: Louisville stands between the Hawkeyes and the Final Four
NCAA women’s basketball tournament: A win sends Iowa to the climactic final weekend for the first time in 30 years
SEATTLE — One game.
This opportunity, this is why Caitlin Clark chose to come to Iowa.
And it’s why Monika Czinano chose to come back.
One game from Dallas. One game from the Final Four.
“This opportunity right here was a huge reason of why I came back (for a fifth year),” Czinano said Saturday. “The opportunity to still be a part of (this) for another year was one that would have been silly to turn down.”
Iowa stands on the welcome mat of its first NCAA women’s basketball Final Four in 30 years. Forty minutes away.
Forty very challenging minutes away.
The third-ranked Hawkeyes (29-6) face Louisville (26-11) in the Seattle Region 4 final Sunday at Climate Pledge Arena. Tipoff is 8 p.m. (CT).
“I’ve dreamed of the Final Four since I was a little kid,” Gabbie Marshall said. “I have goose bumps right now, just thinking about it.”
Iowa is a 5 1/2-point favorite to advance to its first Final Four since 1993.
“They're a whole team,” Louisville Coach Jeff Walz said. “I mean, everybody does their job. (Czinano), she’s phenomenal. And then they have got some shooters.
“You've got Marshall, who goes out there and everybody, oh, she look so sweet, so nice, and she will rip your head off.”
The game within the game, of course, will be the stars — national-player-of-the-year frontrunner Clark (26.9 points, 8.5 assists per game) for Iowa, Hailey Van Lith (19.5 ppg) for Louisville.
Clark and Van Lith were Team USA gold-medal teammates, and roommates on a squad coached by Walz.
“I've known Caitlin for awhile now,” Van Lith said. “Great person off the court, really funny, great sense of humor.”
Both play with passion, lots of it.
“(Van Lith) plays with a ton of energy and passion and that's what I admire most,” Clark said. “I'm somebody that plays with that same level of passion and energy and excitement.
“She's feisty. I think that's what I love about her.”
Van Lith was part of a minor postgame handshake-line altercation after the Cardinals whipped Texas on its home court in the second round.
“I still struggle with channeling (my emotions),” Van Lith said. “I'm very expressive in my emotions and it's just how I am. I'm not going to change it about myself. It's what makes me great.”
Iowa got past Colorado in the regional semifinals, 87-77, thanks to a 13-0 run early in the third quarter. Clark posted 31 points and eight assists.
“Caitlin's a great player,” said Louisville’s Mykasa Robinson, who likely will get the defensive assignment on Iowa’s ace. “I think really just being physical from the jump is what I’ll have to do.”
Louisville followed with a 72-62 victory over Mississippi. Lisa Bluder and the remainder of the Iowa staff watched intently.
“I've always known about (Van Lith) just from watching her over the years and with USA Basketball.
“I have always known about (Davenport native) Chrislyn (Carr), obviously, because she's so close. I was really impressed with Robinson and her speed. I did not know that she was that fast. I would not have thought that from watching her on film or just seeing her statistics for example.
“I think (Olivia) Cochran is very physical inside.”
You can break down this matchup to exhaustion: Iowa is more explosive. Louisville is more stingy defensively. The Cardinals are in the Elite Eight for the fifth consecutive tournament, so that’s worth something.
Iowa is 40 minutes away. It’s the Hawkeyes’ best opportunity, in quite some time, for something very, very big.