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Now everyone knows: No moment is too big for Caitlin Clark and Hawkeyes
The National Player of the Year played like that and more as Hawkeye women get their biggest win ever, over goliath South Carolina in national semifinal
DALLAS — For the first time in 67 years, a University of Iowa basketball team will …
Play for a national championship!!!
The Hawkeye women’s hoopers did what Las Vegas and Planet Basketball thought it couldn’t. They took down unbeaten, No. 1-ranked, defending-champion, 11.5-point favorite South Carolina on Friday night at American Airlines Center.
“I'm so proud of my women because I think they're the only people that really believed,” said Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder, who has been at the peak of her powers the last few weeks. “I don't think anybody else, unless you were in black and gold, believed that we were going to win that game.”
The score was 77-73. It’s the very best, most-meaningful score in the history of Hawkeye women’s basketball, and one of the very best and most-meaningful scores in the history of sports in Iowa.
What a ‘W’ in Big ‘D.’ What a Richter scale-registering victory to set up a title tilt with LSU here Sunday at 2:30 p.m. on ABC. What a thunderous statement of how far this Hawkeyes team has climbed and continues to climb.
This one was ascending Kilimanjaro. Against the Gamecocks team that rebounds everything and blocks a ton, that plays with a defense stingier than someone who brings their own food to a movie theater? That’s a big yes.
Just like that, the Hawkeyes went from beloved underdogs to at least a reasonable bet to snip the nets Sunday, the first Iowa team to have this opportunity since the Iowa men lost to San Francisco in 1956.
That team was felled by the team with a legendary big man, Bill Russell. Iowa overcame a fairly legendary South Carolina post player Friday in Aliyah Boston, the 2022 National Player of the Year and projected No. 1 pick in this year’s WNBA draft.
However, the 2023 Player of the Year is a Hawkeye. You now have heard of Caitlin Clark if you live in New Hampshire or New Mexico. Or New Zealand. She scored 41 points in a national semifinal and took the game over when it had to be taken over.
Iowa probably couldn’t win in overtime with its foul situation and bone-weariness. Clark made sure this thing was wrapped up in 40 minutes with her gutsy drive to the basket with 1:18 left and four free throws in the last 13.5 seconds.
This was beautiful basketball triumphing, but both teams and the 19,000 fans’ reactions combined to make it tense and thrilling. It was Iowa playing Iowa’s game and South Carolina playing South Carolina’s, a game that has been overwhelmingly dominant the last two seasons.
But it’s Iowa that battles a terrific LSU team Sunday, and don’t you think ABC is more than a little pleased Clark and her team are participating?
“I think people tune in because they love watching the Iowa Hawkeyes,” Clark said. “I truly believe that. I understand I’m an exciting player and people love to watch my game, but we play the right style of basketball.
“We’re a skilled team. We shoot the ball well. But I think it’s the joy and the love that we have for one another. We smile, we support each other, we high-five. It’s incredible and it’s special.”
No, it definitely wasn’t just the Clark Show as much as she had the ball in her hands and put it through the nets. Though woefully out-rebounded, 49-25, the Hawkeyes still battled their bigger opponents. The Gamecocks had 20 more field goal attempts than Iowa, but made just two more because Iowa challenged them.
Monika Czinano teetered on a foul-trouble tightrope but still defended. Reserves Addison O’Grady and Hannah Stuelke fought gallantly on the defensive end. O’Grady, who came in averaging 1.9 points, scored four quick ones in a third-quarter stretch that saw Iowa turn its 38-37 halftime lead into a nine-point edge.
The offensive rebounds were Gamecocks 26, Hawkeyes five. The biggest? The one Iowa’s McKenna Warnock retrieved off a Clark miss with 18 seconds left and her team up 73-71. Warnock whipped the ball back to Clark, who got fouled, made her free throws, and swished two more six seconds later to put a bow on things.
Somehow, the Hawkeyes trailed for only 15 seconds in the second half. Making all of their 14 free throws — like Clark, Czinano was 6-of-6 — was crucial. Making five fewer turnovers than the Gamecocks was likewise.
Bottom line: The Hawkeyes shot and passed the ball better than the outgoing champs. Those fundamental things still apply, and applied enough Friday to carry Iowa into a championship.
Yes, Iowa is a team. Clark couldn’t lead a roster of otherwise-ordinary players anywhere near a Final Four. No one can. But Clark was Clark Friday, perhaps the highest compliment she can be paid.
Forty-one points and eight assists against the best defense in women’s ball. The Gamecocks held nine teams under 41 points, but couldn’t do the same to Clark.
And it wasn’t her 3-point acumen that got it done. Clark was just 5 of 17 from deep, still better than South Carolina’s 4-of-20. She got things done by driving against the Gamecocks’ tall timber, and driving some more.
This performance made it official. There is no moment too big for her or her team.
Some of women’s basketball’s all-time greats were in the building for this. Cheryl Miller. Nancy Lieberman. Lisa Leslie. Rebecca Lobo. Clark will attend a Final Four 25 years from now, and she will be remembered and cheered.
People will recall that epic display she had against South Carolina when her team wasn’t supposed to win. It may not be hyperbole to say this game was women’s basketball’s version of the 1979 Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Michigan State-Indiana State men’s national title game in terms of being a bridge to a permanently greater popularity.
Meanwhile, we’ll have to hurry to start talking about the game the Hawkeyes have Sunday afternoon. It will be appointment sports television in America.
Iowa. LSU. Both were a game shy of winning their conferences’ regular-season titles. But we’re in April now. National-championship time.
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