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The finish line has arrived: Iowa vs. LSU, for the NCAA women’s basketball championship
Two days after stunning No. 1 South Carolina, Hawkeyes will try to complete a championship journey
DALLAS — The players didn’t fall asleep until 2:30, 2:45, 3 in the morning. It was more like 4 a.m. for the coaches.
Media obligations came early Saturday morning.
“I didn't get a whole lot of sleep last night,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said. “My father-in-law used to always tell me, you sleep when you're dead.”
Monika Czinano’s slumber was uninterrupted, heavy and restful.
“Once I’m out, I’m out,” she said. “When I woke up, I was rejuvenated.”
One more practice remains, one more sleep.
Then one more game, obviously the biggest game in Iowa women’s basketball history. Perhaps the biggest event in University of Iowa athletics history.
The finish line, the crescendo, has arrived: No. 3 Iowa (31-6) faces No. 9 LSU (33-2) for the NCAA championship Sunday.
Tipoff is 2:30 p.m. at American Airlines Center (ABC).
“It’s bittersweet,” said McKenna Warnock, who — like Czinano — will conclude her black-and-gold career Sunday. “We really want to go out with a national championship. We’re going to leave everything out on the floor.”
Iowa is a 3.5-point favorite.
Both teams are in the final for the first time. Iowa lost in the semifinals in 1993; LSU did likewise in four straight years from 2004 through 2008.
The Tigers are two years removed from a nine-win season. But Kim Mulkey was hired in 2021, and everything changed immediately.
“I think it's obvious we're ahead of schedule. We're sitting here playing for the national championship,” said Mulkey, who won three of them at Baylor.
LSU overcame a 12-point third-quarter deficit Friday in a 79-72 semifinal victory over Virginia Tech. Iowa followed with a 77-73 upset of No. 1 South Carolina in which Caitlin Clark posted her second consecutive 41-point game.
“Honestly, I don't think this has really hit me yet. I don’t think it will hit me for a couple more weeks,” Clark said. “I’m trying to enjoy every single second of this.
“What I really loved is I saw so many videos of people back in Iowa City, just every single bar completely packed, screaming about women's basketball.”
Friday was harrowing back home, with tornadoes and severe thunderstorms causing widespread damage throughout Eastern Iowa.
“My favorite Mexican restaurant (El Sol, in Solon) got its roof taken off,” Bluder said. “My house is fine, according to my neighbors. So we’re happy about that. We’re very blessed.
“A lot of people were without electricity last night, didn’t get to see this great game, which is unfortunate.”
The Hawkeyes can’t afford to be at anything less than their best Sunday.
“I feel like we’re playing South Carolina again, almost, with a little bit better shooters,” Bluder said.
Senior guard Gabbie Marshall missed Saturday’s press huddles. Iowa sports information said Marshall was battling a cold, had lost her voice, and will be available Sunday.
Iowa will be playing another team, and it seems that has been the case throughout the tournament, that holds its opposition in the 50s (it’s 57.1 points per game for the Tigers).
Angel Reese, formerly of Maryland, is one of numerous transfers who have reshaped the LSU roster. The 6-foot-3 sophomore averages 23.2 points and 15.7 rebounds per game (including more than six boards per game on the offensive end).
“She just seems to be playing a little bit more free at LSU,” Bluder said. “We’re going against another rebounding monster team. They're just incredibly good at that.”
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Win or lose, Sunday’s game will be the 92nd, and last, of a stable starting lineup for the Hawkeyes — Clark, Czinano, Warnock, Kate Martin and Marshall.
“Winning a national championship is how you put a final bow on it,” Clark said. “That’s all we have left with McKenna and Monika, who have given their heart and soul to this program. Monika came back for a fifth year to be in a position like this.
“I'm going to be so sad that I don't get to go back to practice with them. Even though I’m tired and my body hurts, I would give an arm and a leg for those girls.”