South Carolina completes its perfect season with the NCAA Championship, beating Clark and Iowa 87-75

CLEVELAND (AP) — Dawn Staley and South Carolina completed their perfect season and ended Caitlin Clark's historic college career with an 87-75 victory over Iowa in the NCAA championship game on Sunday.

With Staley directing a relentless attack from the sideline, the Gamecocks (38-0) became the 10th Division I team to complete an undefeated season. And they accomplished the feat after losing all five starters from last year's team, which lost to Clark's team in the national semifinals.

“It doesn't always end the way you want it to, like last year. But I care about my freshies because that's what they wanted. It is great. …. It is great. It is great. It’s unbelievable,” Staley said. “When young people get into it and have a faith and a trust and their parents have that same trust, here’s what can happen. You made history. They etched their name in the history books.”

Clark did everything she could to lead the Hawkeyes to their first championship. She scored 30 points, including a championship-record 18 in the first quarter. She will go down as one of the greatest players in NCAA history. She rewrote the record book at Iowa (34-5) and became the leading career scorer in NCAA Division I history with 3,951 career points.

She hopes her legacy will be defined not by failure in two NCAA championship games, but rather by the millions of new fans she brought to the sport and the countless young girls and boys she inspired.

“I think the biggest thing is that it’s really hard to win these things. I think I know better than most people that being twice as close really hurts,” Clark said.

As the final buzzer sounded, Clark stoically walked off the field, through the confetti and into the tunnel toward the locker room.

“I would like to personally thank Caitlin Clark for supporting our sport. She carried a heavy burden for our sport,” Staley said. “She will also take this league (WNBA) up. Caitlin Clark, if you're out there, you're one of the GOATs of our game. We appreciate you.”

South Carolina has won three titles in the last eight years, including two of the last three, laying claim to being the youngest dynasty in women's basketball. Staley became the fifth coach to win at least three national championships, joining Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt, Kim Mulkey and Tara VanDerveer.

The Gamecocks, who have won 109 of their last 112 games, became the first team to go undefeated since UConn in 2016. South Carolina had a few scares throughout the season but always found a way to win.

With most of the team returning next year – with the exception of star center Kamilla Cardoso – Staley's team is in a good position to continue that run.

Tessa Johnson led South Carolina with 19 points. Cardoso, the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, had 15 points and 17 rebounds.

“Kamilla Cardoso wouldn’t let us lose a game in the NCAA Tournament,” Staley said. “She played through an injury, she played like one of the top picks in the WNBA draft, and her teammates did something that no teammate has ever done for someone who went to the WNBA in our program. “They send her as national champion. So for us, that’s history.”

Led by Cardoso and 6-foot-2 Ashlyn Watkins, South Carolina had a 51-29 rebounding advantage. It also ended with 30 second chance points.

The Gamecocks also showed off their impressive depth. Johnson helped the team to a 37-0 point differential from reserves.

South Carolina trailed 46-44 late in the second quarter before going on an 11-0 run at halftime and building a 55-46 lead early in the third quarter. Clark finally ended the run with a layup.

The Hawkeyes closed to 59-55 and had a chance to get even closer, but Hannah Stuelke missed a wide-open layup after a brilliant pass from Clark.

South Carolina responded with the next eight points, including two 3-pointers. The Gamecocks, who were 4 for 20 from behind the 3-point line in last season's Final Four loss to Iowa, went 8 for 19 from deep against the Hawkeyes this time.

After the third period, the Gamecocks were ahead 68:59. They led 76-64 early in the fourth before Clark and Gabbie Marshall pulled Iowa ahead within six consecutive three-pointers.

Iowa trailed 80-75 after a three-point play by Sydney Affolter with 4:12 left. That would be the last point the Hawkeyes would score, as South Carolina scored the final seven of the game.

Clark left with 20 seconds left when Iowa coach Lisa Bluder subbed in fellow senior Molly Davis, who had not played since being injured in the regular-season finale against Ohio State.

Unlike in the semifinals, when Clark struggled with UConn's defense, she got going early against South Carolina. Clark scored 13 straight points for Iowa after the Hawkeyes took a 7-0 lead, including another logo 3-pointer, helping her school to a 20-9 lead by the first media timeout.

South Carolina cut the score to 22-20 with 1:30 left before Clark scored the final five points, including a 3-pointer against Cardoso. Clark's 18 points in the first quarter set a championship game record and surpassed the 16 LSU's Jasmine Carson had against the Hawkeyes last year.

She had just three points in the second quarter and hit a 3-pointer with 1:53 left in the quarter. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks used their depth and insider dominance to get back into the game. Cardoso had 11 points and seven rebounds in the first 20 minutes.

The Gamecocks trailed 46-44 in the final minute when Te-Hina PaoPao made a three-pointer and Raven Johnson took the ball from Clark near the halfway line and made a layup. South Carolina led 49-46 at halftime.


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