Home Sports Team effort gives Clark, Iowa another shot at title

Team effort gives Clark, Iowa another shot at title

Team effort gives Clark, Iowa another shot at title


CLEVELAND — Caitlin Clark‘s remarkable college basketball career will continue to the women’s NCAA championship game for a second consecutive year, after the Iowa Hawkeyes defeated the UConn Huskies 71-69 in the Final Four on Friday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

Clark scored 21 points to go along with nine rebounds and seven assists. The Hawkeyes will face No. 1 overall seed South Carolina for the title Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC. The Gamecocks (37-0) beat NC State 78-59 in Friday’s first semifinal.

“I’m just really grateful, I used every single second of my college career over the course of the last two years,” Clark said of going to back-to-back title games. “To be able to go out on top would be super special, but we’re going to have our hands full. South Carolina has been the best all year and kind of been at a different level than anybody else.

“We’re going to do the best we can. Just go out and give it your all. There’s only 40 minutes left of my college career.”

The fact that she has one more game is because of an overall team effort from Iowa, Clark stressed.

Sophomore post player Hannah Stuelke led the Hawkeyes (34-4) in scoring with 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting. It was only the second time this season that Clark did not lead Iowa in scoring; in both games it was Stuelke who stepped up. Stuelke had a career-high 47 points on Feb. 8 against Penn State, but given how high the stakes were Friday, this was likely the best game of her career. She earned high praise from Clark.

“Confidence is everything,” Stuelke said. “Especially hearing Caitlin Clark talk about me like that, it gives me a confidence boost. I think anyone would say that. But they just fed me the ball very well. And the ball was going in for me tonight.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder added of Stuelke, “I’m just so pleased with her growth tonight. She just took, as a sophomore … another big leap tonight.”

Senior guard Kate Martin contributed 11 points and eight rebounds as Iowa won the rebounding battle 37-29. Hawkeyes guard Gabbie Marshall drew a key late offensive foul against Aaliyah Edwards with 3.9 seconds left that helped seal the victory.

Clark’s signature 3-point shooting was off in the first half as she was 0-for-6 from long range and Iowa trailed 32-26 at halftime with the star limited to six points on 3-of-11 shooting overall.

The Hawkeyes had more turnovers (12) than field goals (11) in the first half, evidence of how good the Huskies’ defense was, especially Nika Muhl‘s work on Clark. Iowa’s 26 points tied its season low, matching its first-half output in a second-round victory over West Virginia.

But Iowa’s offense was much better in the second half as the Hawkeyes had 25 points in the third quarter and sent the game to the final period tied 51-51. In the fourth quarter Iowa outscored UConn 20-18.

“It speaks to the journey we’ve been on over the course of the last month,” Clark said of winning the Big Ten tournament and now making the NCAA final. “Not every game is going to be pretty. You can’t expect us to always come out here and put on an offensive display of making shots and it flowing perfectly. The first half certainly was not that. We went into the locker room and the main focus was, ‘Stop turning the ball over.’ We knew our shots were going to fall at some point.

“I think we were a little more patient. One thing Coach Bluder was talking about at halftime is that we were all just running around like chaos. Nobody was looking at each other, nobody was actually setting a screen, nobody was watching a cutter. It was just kind of out of control. So it was like, ‘Take a breath, slow down, really run our offense.'”

Even though Iowa leads Division I in scoring this season at 91.4 points per game, defense has been a key in all five of the Hawkeyes’ NCAA tournament wins. That was evident Friday as the Hawkeyes were able to win despite scoring 20 points below their average. It was fitting that Marshall, the team’s defensive specialist, made such a huge play in the final seconds.

Clark is expected to be selected No. 1 by the Indiana Fever in the WNBA draft on April 15. The Fever, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2016 but have a good young core, open their season May 14 at Connecticut.

But first Clark will go against the team that Iowa beat in last year’s semifinals: South Carolina, which is seeking its third NCAA championship. Iowa, which lost to LSU 102-85 in last year’s final, is going for its first national championship.

UConn was attempting to advance to its 13th NCAA final; the Huskies have won 11 titles. Their last trip to the NCAA championship game was in 2022, when they fell to South Carolina.

“We’re going to do the best we can. Just go out and give it your all. There’s only 40 minutes left of my college career.”

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark on facing South Carolina for the national championship

UConn guard Paige Bueckers, who came into college in the same class as Clark but missed last season with a knee injury, will return next season in pursuit of her first national championship. Bueckers and Edwards, who is headed to the WNBA draft, led UConn with 17 points each Friday.

“The only thing you can really feel right now is the sting of the loss,” Bueckers said. “It takes a while to process after the season, win or loss, the whole journey of it all. But this year, especially, with my perspective, you just appreciate it as it goes along.”

Clark now owns career totals of 3,921 points, 1,139 assists and 982 rebounds. During her senior season, she became Division I’s all-time leading scorer, men’s or women’s, and the first player in women’s basketball to have more than 3,000 points and 1,000 assists. She also holds the record for most points in a season with 1,204.

But Clark’s career has also been measured by her impact on game attendance and television ratings. Iowa sold out every home game — and many on the road — in 2023-24 after attracting a crowd of 55,646 at Kinnick Stadium, home of Iowa’s football team, for a preseason game.

The 2023 national championship game featuring Clark drew 9.9 million viewers on ABC. Then this Monday’s Elite Eight, in which Clark scored 41 points in a rematch with LSU, drew an audience of 12.3 million on ESPN.

The one thing left for Clark to accomplish at Iowa is winning the NCAA title. But an undefeated team stands in the way.

“South Carolina has been the top of the top,” Clark said. “We’re going to do everything we can to try to be right there with them. I think the biggest thing is enjoy this tonight and we’ll go over the scout early in the morning.”


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