DALLAS — South Carolina’s defense has loomed large for Iowa since the two schools were drawn in the same region a year ago. Caitlin implicitly admits that there was a group with the tools to control Clark.
That conflict of a year ago did not happen. But Clark has faced every defense possible over the past three years as she rose from a freshman event to national player of the year. Teams press her full court, rotate defenders to wear her down, throw traps at her, often run the full range of options to make life difficult for Clark, and by extension the Hawkeyes.
No defense could find her.
But Friday brought a long-awaited Final Four matchup against South Carolina. Clark has never dealt with a defense quite like Gamecox — a unit loaded with talented defenders that hasn’t allowed any opponent to reach its scoring average this season. The gap between South Carolina’s defensive rating and second was greater than the gap between second and 34th.
There are many ways to frame this epic national semifinal: a battle of the reigning player of the year against last year’s award winners, the nation’s best offense against the nation’s best defense, an undefeated juggernaut winning back-to-back crowns against a talented upstart. Haven’t been to the Final Four in 30 years.
But the Final Four really came down to one question: Can the historically best defense stop the most prolific offensive force in college basketball? As many believed, that possibility was theoretical.
Now, it has been removed.
Caitlin Clark shattered that illusion 77-73, sending No. 2 Iowa to its first national championship game.
His 41 points, eight assists and six rebounds didn’t match the triple-double he posted against Louisville in the Elite Eight. However, given the stage and the level of competition, it was a fine example of Clark rising to the occasion and raising his game to the stakes. She is the first player in women’s NCAA Tournament history to record back-to-back games with at least 40 points. He posted the second-highest total in Final Four history behind Sherrill Swoopes’ 47 in 1993.
“She’s different,” assistant coach John Jensen said of Clark. “The Jordans are different. Taurus people are different. The way she approaches it, she has a belief in it.
Caitlin Clark and the stories only those who have known her forever can tell
Unlike some teams trying to take away Clark’s scoring, the Gamecocks came up with a plan to limit his game. They kept Iowa’s shooters at home, relied on their guards and wings to limit Clark one-on-one as best they could, and forced the Hawkeyes to beat them with 2-pointers. With Alia Boston and Camila Cardoso to guard Monica Sinano, South Carolina had to feel good about its process.
The problem is that Clark defies even the most expert planning. If Iowa’s shooters were bringing three defenders to the perimeter with them, the middle of the floor was open, giving Clark multiple options to attack the paint.
The first tactic is to drive to the basket knowing help is unlikely to come. It didn’t matter who Gamecox put down, Clark was able to get to the ring. Bree Beal National Defensive Player of the Year? She doesn’t have the confidence to stand up to Clark. Bree Hall couldn’t get through enough screens. Raven Johnson stayed 94 yards with Clark and contested every shot, and Clark still scored on him.
When South Carolina switched its pick to Clark, he found a way to get his shot. After unsuccessfully attempting a hook shot in Boston, he learned the next time and drove past the nation’s best defender from the 3-point line.
In the third quarter, Clark found a lane to the basket that was blocked by the 6-foot-7 Cardoso; She cheated a way out and entered the finish anyway.
Clark has yet to do all the scoring himself. South Carolina was disciplined with McKenna Warnock, Kate Martin and Gabby Marshall, limiting all three to two 3-pointers, so Clark turned to her bread and butter: the two-player game with Monica Sinano.
The Hawkeyes ran the pick-and-roll mercilessly, forcing Camcox’s picks away from the basket. That means if the frontcourt defender gets to the level of the screen, Sinano is rolling open, or attacking on the move, where his size disadvantage is exacerbated by his superior footwork. Clark’s accurate passing meant Sinano was in great position to finish, and Iowa needed every one of his 18 points, with no other Hawkeyes player scoring in double figures.
“I’ve seen a lot of good defenses. The thing is, we found some weaknesses early in the game, and that’s what we kept going for,” Clark said. “They were guarding Mon(Iga) so high that it allowed me to get to the rim. I thought we were dragging their edge defenders off the edge they were used to. But honestly, a lot of screen action. A lot of down screens, a lot of ball screens. It was something we saw on film and thought could work, and we executed it well.
Iowa led for most of the game, taking a four-point lead into the final period, but a quick 5-0 spurt pushed the Hawkeyes into a one-point hole. It was a moment that threatened to unravel everything Iowa had worked for, a moment where the Gamecocks could assert themselves as the favorites again.
Instead, Clark found a new position, making South Carolina’s crowning achievement his crowning achievement. He would score or assist on every point in the final 9 minutes and 5 seconds, starting with a pull-up 3-pointer off a screen from Sinano. Next, another screen-and-roll with his favorite dance partner, resulting in a layup for Sinano. Following that, Gamecox successfully circled the fifth-year center, so a step-back 3-pointer from the logo was in order.
In all, 16 fourth-quarter points helped Iowa pull off one of its biggest upsets in recent memory, the latest dramatic ending to a contest full of surprises.
“It can be frustrating for other teams. You try to do your best and put your best defenders on her. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of women’s basketball, or men’s at this point. She is a student.
No matter what Gamecox threw at her, Clarke had an answer. She got to her places regardless of the size of the guard. She set Sinano up even though she faced several posts that towered over her. She drains deep 3-pointers that light up hockey’s fan base. When his team needed points, it was Clarke who took every shot.
It took three years for Clarke and his teammates to develop the confidence that their style of play could defeat anyone they came up against. For three years, Clark was the best player on the court. After three years of seeing hands in her face, box-and-ones, doubles, traps, and more garbage blocks, she knows how to tackle every obstacle possible.
The story of this tournament was expected to be the greatness of the Gamecocks, who would become the eighth undefeated team in college basketball history. Instead, Iowa’s star took center stage.
No defense could solve the Caitlin Clark puzzle.
(Photo by Caitlin Clark: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)