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Iowa, South Carolina meet again with title, history on line

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By jeenmediaa


CLEVELAND — Caitlin Clark chucked the ball into the air as the buzzer sounded in the 2023 national semifinals, clinching her Iowa Hawkeyes‘ 77-73 upset win over the South Carolina Gamecocks. At the time, the result was shocking: The Hawkeyes had handed the Gamecocks their first loss of the season and advanced to the program’s first national championship game.

Iowa’s magic last season ran out two days later when the LSU Tigers won the NCAA title.

Little did anyone know that the March 31, 2023 Final Four showdown would preview a contest yet to come with even higher stakes.

A year later, South Carolina and Iowa will meet for the 2024 women’s NCAA title, and in many ways, few anticipated Sunday’s matchup (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App). The Gamecocks graduated all five starters from last season, and weren’t expected — both outside of Columbia and within the program — to be this good, at least in the preseason. Iowa also lost two key players, took some bumps during the regular season and, despite being a No. 1 seed, had to survive the tournament’s most difficult regional in Albany 2, which involved beating the defending champs in the Elite Eight.

And yet, once the NCAA bracket came out three weeks ago, this potential championship matchup simmered in the background as a tantalizing possibility. So much so that 29.7% of brackets in ESPN’s Women’s Tournament Challenge predicted fellow 1-seeds South Carolina and Iowa to meet in the title game, the most common matchup picked.

In a year when there has been one team and one player seemingly above the rest, it’s fitting that the last game of the 2023-24 season comes down to an unstoppable force in Clark meeting an immovable object in South Carolina, each on the verge of history.

“I think this matchup, you can’t ask for anything better,” Clark said.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley added: “It’s a monumental game for our game. We’re very fortunate to be a part of it.”

South Carolina (37-0) is chasing its third national title in seven NCAA tournaments (previously winning in 2017 and 2022), a championship that would cement the Gamecocks as the sport’s modern-day dynasty and make them just the 10th undefeated champion in Division I women’s basketball history. Only four programs — UConn, Texas, Tennessee and Baylor — have ever achieved such a feat.

Sunday’s title game marks the ninth NCAA championship game between the top two teams in The Associated Press poll, and the first since 2015. The No. 1 team has won seven of the previous eight matchups, including six straight. And it’s the third time the championship contest features the AP No. 1 team (South Carolina) and the Naismith Player of the Year (Clark) — with the top-ranked team winning each of the previous two.

The Gamecocks are the 11th team in women’s NCAA tournament history to reach the title game unbeaten, with nine of the previous 10 winning it all — the only one that didn’t win faced another unbeaten team (Notre Dame falling to UConn in 2014).

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The numbers behind Iowa and South Carolina’s title game matchup

Check out some stats as Iowa is set to face off with undefeated South Carolina for a chance at an NCAA title.

South Carolina’s players on Saturday said they relish the opportunity to put the finishing touches on a perfect season against the team that ended a similar run last year. Clark dropped 41 against the Gamecocks that night on 15-for-31 shooting, breezing by South Carolina defenders to get to the rim no matter who they had on her.

And when a moment went viral of Clark waving off Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson, letting her go unguarded at the 3-point arc, it spearheaded a so-called “revenge tour” this season for the Gamecocks.

“I was looking forward toward [Iowa], but I mean it happened the right way,” Johnson, a sophomore guard, said Saturday. “I’m ready for the matchup just going from last year and just the pain we felt last year. I think it happened at the right time, and it happened in the right way.”

Junior Bree Hall added: “I think this is just the perfect story falling right into place and what we want.”

Iowa already took down Goliath once; to do so again would be historic. The Hawkeyes are the fourth team in NCAA tournament history to face an undefeated opponent in consecutive seasons, and the second to face the same unbeaten squad. Nobody has beaten the same undefeated team multiple times in the tournament, let alone in consecutive seasons.

Still, Iowa has something those teams don’t: Clark, the player who boasts the most points in Division I men’s or women’s history (3,921 points); a player who would cement her legacy in Iowa City and beyond with a national title.

“I think that would be the cherry on top,” Clark said. “That would be the top of the list, the thing that you’re most proud of. That’s something you get to share with your teammates. But at the same time, it would be for every Iowa women’s basketball player that has come before us.”

Last season, the Hawkeyes couldn’t capitalize off their win over the Gamecocks. In the title game, Iowa allowed LSU to score 102 points, the most scored in a tournament final by a single team. The Hawkeyes got the job done against LSU this year and hope to maintain that momentum Sunday — especially with Clark, the presumptive 2024 WNBA No. 1 pick, and four fellow seniors playing in their final collegiate game.

“I’m fortunate enough to be able to be in the national championship again and give it everything I got,” Clark said.

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SVP’s One Big Thing: South Carolina and Iowa run it back

Scott Van Pelt breaks down the incredible runs by South Carolina and Iowa and looks ahead to the NCAA women’s title game.

Whether last season’s meeting has much bearing on Sunday remains to be seen. Players from both teams stressed Saturday that it’s hard to take much away from that given how different their squads are from March 2023.

Clark has only elevated her game even more this season, albeit coming off a relatively quiet 21-point performance against UConn on Friday. Starters Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock graduated, but sophomore Hannah Stuelke and fifth-year senior Kate Martin have come into their own, and Martin said the team might be even better defensively and in transition than last season.

For the Gamecocks, Aliyah Boston (the No. 1 pick in the 2023 WNBA draft), Zia Cooke and three other former starters are gone, but their revamped roster features even better guard play thanks to the additions of transfer Te-Hina Paopao and freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, as well as the growth of Johnson and Hall. Staley’s nine-player rotation generates waves of players who can impact the game whether they are in the starting five or even play 30 minutes.

Not only did the Gamecocks emerge this year as one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country (39.5%), a hole they addressed after making just 4 of 20 attempts against Iowa last year, but a larger role for 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso poses a matchup problem for the Hawkeyes.

“This South Carolina team is completely different,” Clark said. “Some of the stuff they run is completely different. We have to guard them completely different. The way they’re shooting the ball. I mean, they start five different people. They switch up who they start at the 4 position from game to game. So we’ll be prepared for either of those.”

All eyes will be on the title game in Cleveland to see whether different teams lead to different results — or if history repeats itself. After 14.2 million tuned in to Iowa-UConn on Friday to make it the most-viewed women’s college basketball game on record, enormous expectations surround what happens on court and the history that will be made.

“I hope it’s the most-watched game,” Staley said. “And I just hope the viewers, the people in attendance, will take tomorrow’s moment and carry it to the rest of the history of our sport.”



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