WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR: Iowa's Kaitlyn Clark advances to the women's national title game to face South Carolina



CNN

Kaitlin Clark's final game in an Iowa uniform will be with a national championship on the line. It will come against a team potentially on the verge of a dynasty.

No. 1 Iowa State narrowly advanced to the national championship game of the NCAA women's tournament after surviving a scare from No. 3 Connecticut, 71-69, in the Final Four at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on Friday.

The Hawkeyes will face undefeated and top-seeded South Carolina State in the title game on Sunday. The Gamecocks, buoyed by center Kamilla Cardoso and a strong third quarter, defeated No. 3 NC State 78-59 in the previous semifinal of the night.

In 2023, Clark and the Hawkeyes fell short in the national title game, losing to Angel Reese and LSU 102-85. This time, Clark – in a record-breaking season – can finish her college career as a champion and give Iowa its first national title in women's and men's basketball.

Among the records she set, Clark has the most career points in women's and men's Division I history. Considered a generational talent, the 22-year-old is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft on April 15.

South Carolina, now 108-3 over the past three seasons, is back in the national championship game for the first time since 2022, when it won the national title for the second time in program history. This is the Gamecocks' fourth straight Final Four appearance and a chance for them to win their third national title in seven years.

A year ago, South Carolina's only loss of the season came to Iowa, in the Final Four.

“South Carolina was at the top of the game,” Clark said. “They're in a different league. We're going to do everything we can to try to be there with them. But, yeah, I think the most important thing is to enjoy tonight and we're going to do our scouting review early in the morning.”

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Against UConn, Clark overcame a poor shooting performance in the first half to finish with 21 points. Hannah Stolke scored a game-high 23 points.

There were expectations that Friday night's game between Iowa and UConn would be a shooting display between Clark and the Huskies star Paige Bakers.

Instead, Clark and Iowa had to overcome a stout UConn defense and a Huskies team that wouldn't go away.

Clark failed to make three-point shots in the first half, going 0-for-6, and was held to six points in the first two quarters.

In the first half, Iowa State turned the ball over 12 times, while UConn had 11 steals and led by as many as 12 points.

But Iowa State came close when the half was over. The Huskies entered halftime with a 32-26 lead. At the end of the third quarter, the two teams were tied 51-51.

At first, it looked like Iowa would pull away in the fourth round. But UConn stayed in it, and a 3-pointer from Nika Mühl cut Iowa's lead to 70-69 with 49 seconds left. A steal by KK Arnold gave UConn the ball with 9.3 seconds left, but an offensive foul – Controversial call – Aliyah Edwards returns the ball to the Hawkeyes.

Bookers fouled Clark with 3.1 seconds left. Clark made her first free throw to make the score 71-69, but she missed the second. The teams battled for the ball, and Iowa State retained possession. With a successful inside play, Iowa held on for the win.

Bueckers and Edwards each finished with 17 points. Arnold had 14.

It was the 23rd NCAA Final Four appearance — and 15th in the last 16 NCAA Tournaments — for the 11-time national champion Huskies, all under coach Geno Auriemma.

But this was perhaps the most unlikely Final Four trip ever, as UConn, which has been ravaged by injuries this season, had a depleted roster. The Huskies got hot during the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Final Four by besting No. 1 USC.

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Jason Miller/Getty Images

Clark's reaction after the win over UConn.

“UConn is a really good defensive team, one of the best defensive teams we've seen all year,” Clark said. “I think Nika did a great job guarding me.

“We got some good looks. They didn't go in. Sometimes that's what happens. We missed some easy bunnies around the rim.

“But I think the best thing about our group was that we went into the locker room at the end of the first half and it wasn't like, 'Oh, come on, you've got to make a shot.' It was like, 'No, stop turning the ball over and you'll be totally fine.'

“We knew that at some point our shooting was going to drop. We scored 45 points in the second half and 25 in the third quarter. We came out in the fourth quarter, and we started really hot.

“So I don't think it was panicking about the offense not working. I think it was just that it would come. We didn't perform well, we were only down by six. We felt really confident in that. Nobody panicked. Everyone knew we just needed To clean it up a bit, that's exactly what we did.

Despite being the No. 1 overall seed, the only undefeated women's college basketball team, and a roster of depth, No. 1 South Carolina seemed to have flown under the radar throughout the NCAA Tournament.

Maybe that will change on Sunday.

With the win over NC State on Friday, South Carolina is now 37-0. To get to 38-0, the Gamecocks will have to eliminate Clark and the Hawkeyes.

In Friday's Final Four win, South Carolina's Cardoso, who announced Monday she will participate in the WNBA draft, finished with 22 points, going 10 of 12 from the field, to grab 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 center started the game 6-for-6 from the field and led all scorers with 16 goals in the first half.

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However, there was cause for concern, with just over two minutes remaining in the first half. Cardoso limped after trying to drive to the basket and stumbled to the locker room with 1:39 remaining in the quarter. South Carolina led 32-31 at halftime.

But Cardoso would come back early in the second half, and South Carolina came out strong, outscoring the Wolfpack 29-6 in the third quarter and ending the period on a 17-1 run.

By then, the game was out of reach at 61-37, and coach Don Staley kept Cardoso on the bench for the fourth quarter.

“I mean, you play to your strengths,” Staley told reporters. “Camila is our strength. She's 6'7”. She is graceful. She can control the paint. “She plays with the desire to win.”

“Greatness is a process,” Staley later said of Cardoso. I believe it is still in the early stages of its greatness. I think you'll see her play better when you're with professional players.

Ashlyn Watkins had 20 rebounds to go along with eight points, while Raven Johnson had 13 points and five assists. Te Hina Paopao added 10 points and six assists.

Gregory Shamos/Getty Images

South Carolina's Camila Cardoso shoots the ball past the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the first half.

This has been an NCAA Tournament filled with star power, with Iowa's Clark, UConn's Bueckers, LSU's Reese, and USC's JuJu Watkins, to name a few. Meanwhile, South Carolina continues to win.

For NC State, the dream season ends at 31-7. This was the Wolfpack's second trip to the Final Four and first since 1998.

Isaiah James led NC State with 20 points.

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