Iowa vs. South Carolina gives us the ending we wanted and the finale this season deserves

CLEVELAND — Just when you thought this women’s basketball season couldn’t give any more, just when you thought it had drained itself of record on-court performances, all-time viewership numbers and compelling grudge matches, it is giving us an opportunity to witness all three in one game, pitting Iowa against South Carolina in the national championship showdown most fans and every ABC executive wanted.

It had to end this way, right? Great player versus great team. The quest for the perfect ending versus the pursuit of the perfect season. An opportunity for South Carolina to avenge its only loss of the last two seasons. A way to cap a memorable season with a potentially unforgettable finale.

If the Iowa-LSU regional final drew an average of 12.3 million viewers on a Monday night on cable, it boggles the mind to think what the Iowa-South Carolina rematch of last year’s national semifinal could do Sunday on network television. You have Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s transcendent star and expected No. 1 pick of the upcoming WNBA Draft, seeking to go out on top after losing in last season’s title game. And you have South Carolina, with virtually an all-new lineup, seeking to finish what it could not a year ago.

The latter is why sophomore guard Raven Johnson has called this the Revenge Tour, a description not completely pleasing to coach Dawn Staley, but a motivational tool she’s willing to accept.

“I give them that space,” she said of her players after defeating NC State 78-59 Friday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. “Whatever it is that can get them to execute and play in practice the way we need to prep for games, have at it. For me, it’s about coaching and teaching and figuring out a way to allow our players to have their dreams come true. Whatever Raven needs to keep her playing at a high confident level, whether it’s Revenge Tour or whatever she comes up with … I hope it ends in being the national champion.”

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South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and guard Bree Hall celebrate after defeating NC State 78-59 in Friday night’s semifinal. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

By  Staley’s own admission, the Gamecocks (37-0) were not supposed to be here. They lost five players to the WNBA, with three being drafted among the top 10 selections. They returned only three players who averaged at least 10 minutes a game and none who averaged more than 13. And yet to see them in the third quarter against NC State was to believe they have been playing together for years.

They led by one at halftime, then went on a run that was as prolonged as it was beautiful, outscoring the Wolfpack 17-1 at one point in the third quarter and 29-6 overall. Their minds were free and their bodies loose. They didn’t communicate with words because they were intuitively connected. When the surge was over, onlookers were left breathless and NC State was left with the reality that the outcome was a fait accompli.



South Carolina advances to national championship

“It felt like the whole atmosphere felt it out there, like our fans felt it out there,” said freshman guard Tessa Johnson. “Basketball is a game of runs, but in those moments it feels good because you can see us smiling. We’re having fun playing with each other and sharing the ball, getting on the floor, getting stops, doing the little things. We’re playing free. We emphasize that — like, play you. Each person has a different style of play and it all works like a little puzzle. Each person is a piece of the puzzle and it fits together perfectly. So, play free, you’re good.”

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The Gamecocks can beat you in multiple ways. They can work the paint with 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso, who dominated Friday with 22 points and 11 rebounds while also affecting Wolfpack shots around the rim. They can also prevail with perimeter play from Te-Hina Paopao, the two Johnsons and Malaysia Fulwiley. But more than anything they can beat you with their depth and defense, which wears on opponents over time.

“South Carolina has been the top of the top,” Clark said after Iowa’s 71-69 victory over Connecticut. “They’re in a different league. We’re going to do everything we can to try to be right there with them, but, yeah, I think the biggest thing is enjoy this tonight and we’ll go over the scout(ing report) early in the morning.”



Clark leads Iowa past UConn, into another title game

As strange as it may sound, the Gamecocks have operated in the shadows all week. The focus has largely been on Clark. I would say Clark and Iowa, but that wouldn’t be true. Clark is the one with the gravitational pull. She’s the all-time leading scorer in NCAA basketball, the person who can comfortably launch from a logo, the one who moves the ratings needle. Where she goes, attention follows, which is why her final college game could be one for the ages.

“It feels like every time we’re going into a game in this NCAA Tournament, it’s like everybody wants to see this, just one after the next,” she said. “I think it’s good for women’s basketball. I think being in this moment before gives our group a good understanding of what to expect. We know what South Carolina brings to the table. We know we’re going to have our hands full. The way that they played tonight was incredible. But it’s the national championship. It’s the last game of my career. It’s the last game for five people on this team. So, I don’t think motivation will be hard to come by.”

Neither will interest. And that’s the way it should be.

(Top photo of Caitlin Clark after Iowa’s 71-69 victory against UConn: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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