March Madness: South Carolina fends off Caitlin Clark, Iowa to win third national title

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South Carolina is now the first undefeated team to win a national championship since UConn in 2016. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

One year later, Dawn Staley and South Carolina got their revenge.

After losing to Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes in the Final Four a year ago, the Gamecocks held on late Sunday for their third national championship in program history. South Carolina rallied out of an early double-digit hole to beat Iowa 87-75 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

The win completed South Carolina’s perfect 38-0 season, which made it the first undefeated national champion since 2016 and the 10th team to do so in history. The Gamecocks have lost just one game over the past two seasons.

The loss for the Hawkeyes marks their second straight in the national championship game following last year’s loss to LSU. Clark, who broke two records in the first quarter on Sunday afternoon, finished with 30 points for Iowa in her final college game.

Caitlin Clark breaks more records in first quarter

The Hawkeyes got off to just about the perfect start possible on Sunday afternoon. They opened the game on a 10-0 run, powered by five quick points from Kate Martin to open the game. After a Sydney Affolter layup, Clark then took over. She dropped 13 straight points for the Hawkeyes, and even drilled a near-logo 3-pointer to suddenly put them up 20-9 at the first media timeout.

That 11-point deficit matched the largest deficit that the Gamecocks had faced all season.

While that didn’t hold, Clark broke two more records before the quarter ended. She finished the period with 18 points thanks to a late contested 3-pointer over Gamecocks star Kamilla Cardoso to put the Hawkeyes up by seven points at the end of the period. That officially made Clark the NCAA tournament’s all-time leading scorer — she needed just 18 points on Sunday to pass both Maya Moore and Chamique Holdsclaw on the scoring list — and broke a single-quarter scoring record in the championship game.

South Carolina, though, surged ahead in the final seconds of the second quarter to enter the locker room with a 49-46 lead. Te-Hina Paopao drilled her third 3-pointer of the game, and then Raven Johnson picked up a steal off of Clark and made a layup to end the half.

South Carolina hangs on late

Like they have so many times this season, the Gamecocks took over in the second half. They responded to a 9-2 run from the Hawkeyes in the middle of the third period with an 11-2 run themselves capped by huge 3-pointers from Bree Hall and Tessa Johnson. That gave them an 11-point lead, their largest of the game at that point.

Just when it looked like they were going to run away with it, Clark sparked an 8-0 burst with a huge 3-pointer and an attempt from the logo — which Gabbie Marshall followed with a 3-pointer of her own. That cut the deficit to just six points.

That, though, was just about it for the Hawkeyes. The Gamecocks, after Affolter cut it to five points with an and-1 layup, quickly pushed ahead and took a double-digit lead again within minutes before holding on for the 12-point win. Iowa didn’t score the rest of the way after Affolter’s free throw.

Clark shot 10-of-28 from the field and had eight rebounds and five assists to go with her 30 points in the loss for Iowa. She’ll turn her attention to the WNBA Draft later this month, where the Indiana Fever are almost certainly going to take her with the No. 1 overall pick. While in Iowa City, Clark became college basketball’s all-time leading scorer on both the men’s and women’s side, won two straight National Player of the Year honors, led the Hawkeyes to three straight Big Ten tournament titles and got them to back-to-back national championship games, among countless other accolades. The last two tournament games featuring the Hawkeyes both broke national viewership records, too. Their win over UConn in the Final Four drew 14.2 million viewers, which made it the most-watched women’s college basketball game on record.

Martin added 16 points for the Hawkeyes, and Affolter finished with 12 points. The Hawkeyes didn’t have any points off the bench, and they shot just 9-of-23 from the 3-point line as a team.

Cardoso led the Gamecocks with 15 points and 17 rebounds. She declared for the WNBA Draft ahead of the Final Four. The 6-foot-7 center has dominated at South Carolina over the past four years and was a huge part in the Gamecocks’ back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. She’s widely expected to be a lottery pick in the draft later this month. ESPN’s Michael Voepel had Cardoso going No. 4 overall in his latest mock draft earlier this month.

Johnson added 19 points off the bench for South Carolina while shooting 7-of-11 from the field. Paopao added 14 points, and Chloe Kitts had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

The championship is just the latest evidence of the dynasty that Staley has built in Columbia. Since she took over in 2008, the Gamecocks have been to six Final Fours — including four straight — and now have three national titles. While Clark dominated the sport all season long and helped transform women’s basketball in a way few have, the Gamecocks have once again come out on top.

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