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South Carolina Finishes Perfect Season With NCAA Championship, Beating Iowa

Apr 7, 2024, 3:58 PM

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The South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate after beating the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 2024 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament National Championship at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on April 07, 2024 in Cleveland, Ohio. Iowa beat South Carolina 87-75. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Dawn Staley and South Carolina completed their perfect season, ending Caitlin Clark’s historic college career with an 87-75 win over Iowa in the NCAA championship game Sunday.

South Carolina wins title

With Staley directing a relentless attack from the sideline, the Gamecocks (38-0) became the 10th Division I team to go through a season without a loss. And they accomplished the feat after they lost all five starters from last season’s team that lost to Clark’s squad in the national semifinals.

“It doesn’t always end like you want it to end, much like last year. But my freshies are at the top of my heart because they wanted this. It’s awesome. …. It’s awesome. It’s awesome. It’s unbelievable,” Staley said. “When young people lock in and have a belief, and have a trust, and their parents have that same trust, this is what can happen. They made history. They etched their names in the history books.”

Clark did all she could to lead the Hawkeyes to their first championship. She scored 30 points, including a championship-record 18 in the first quarter. She will go down as one of the greatest players in NCAA history. She rewrote the record book at Iowa (34-5), finishing as the career leading scorer in NCAA Division I history with 3,951 career points.

She hopes her legacy isn’t defined by falling short in two NCAA championship games, but more by the millions of new fans she helped bring into the game and the countless young girls and boys that she inspired.

“I think the biggest thing is it’s really hard to win these things, I think I know that better than most people by now, to be so close twice really hurts,” Clark said.

As the final buzzer sounded, a stoic Clark walked off the court, through the confetti, and into the tunnel heading to the locker room.

“I personally want to thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport,” Staley said. “She’s going to lift that league (WNBA) up as well. Caitlin Clark if you’re out there you’re one of the GOATs of our game. We appreciate you.”

South Carolina has won three titles in the last eight years, including two of the past three, to lay claim to being the latest dynasty in women’s basketball. Staley became the fifth coach to win at least three national championships, joining Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt, Kim Mulkey and Tara VanDerveer.

The Gamecocks, who have won 109 of their last 112 games, became the first team since UConn in 2016 to go undefeated. South Carolina had a couple scares throughout the season, but always found a way to win.

With most of the team returning next year — except for star center Kamilla Cardoso — Staley’s team is in a good position to keep this run going.

Tessa Johnson led South Carolina with 19 points. Cardoso, the NCAA tourney’s Most Outstanding Player, had 15 points and 17 rebounds.

“Kamilla Cardoso was not going to let us lose a game in the NCAA Tournament,” Staley said. “She played through an injury, she played like one of the top picks in the WNBA draft, and her teammates did something that no teammates have done for somebody who went to the WNBA in our program. They send her off as a national champion. So this is history for us.”

Led by the 6-foot-7 Cardoso and Ashlyn Watkins, South Carolina enjoyed a 51-29 rebounding advantage. It also finished with 30 second-chance points.

The Gamecocks also showed off their impressive depth. Johnson helped the team to a 37-0 difference in points by reserves.

South Carolina trailed 46-44 late in the second quarter before going on an 11-0 run spanning halftime to open a 55-46 advantage early in the third quarter. Clark finally ended the run with a layup.

The Hawkeyes closed to 59-55 and had a chance to get even closer, but Hannah Stuelke missed a wide-open layup on a brilliant pass from Clark.

South Carolina responded with the next eight points, including two 3-pointers. The Gamecocks, who were 4 for 20 from behind the 3-point line during last season’s Final Four loss to Iowa, went 8 for 19 from deep against the Hawkeyes this time around.

The Gamecocks were up 68-59 after the third. They led 76-64 early in the fourth before back-to-back 3s by Clark and Gabbie Marshall got Iowa within six.

Iowa was down 80-75 after a three-point play by Sydney Affolter with 4:12 left. That would be the last point the Hawkeyes would score as South Carolina got the last seven of the game.

Clark checked out with 20 seconds left when Iowa coach Lisa Bluder subbed in fellow senior Molly Davis, who hadn’t played since she got hurt in the regular-season finale against Ohio State.

Unlike the semifinals, when Clark struggled against UConn’s defense, she got going early against South Carolina. Clark scored 13 straight points for Iowa after the Hawkeyes jumped out to a 7-0 lead, including another logo 3-pointer, to help her school to a 20-9 advantage by the first media timeout.

South Carolina cut it to 22-20 with 1:30 left in the period before Clark scored the final five points, including a 3-pointer over Cardoso. Clark’s 18 points in the opening quarter set a championship game record, surpassing the 16 that Jasmine Carson of LSU had last year against the Hawkeyes.

She only had three points in the second quarter, hitting a 3-pointer with 1:53 left in the period. Meanwhile the Gamecocks used their depth and inside dominance to get back in the game. Cardoso had 11 points and seven rebounds in the opening 20 minutes.

The Gamecocks trailed 46-44 in the final minute when Te-Hina PaoPao hit a 3-pointer and Raven Johnson stole the ball from Clark near midcourt and went in for a layup. South Carolina led 49-46 at the half.

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