SPORTS

South Carolina gets revenge against Caitlin Clark and Iowa, wins 3rd women’s national championship

Apr 7, 2024, 7:00 PM

Clark's impressive performance in the Final Four against the Gamecocks last year stunned the favori...

Clark's impressive performance in the Final Four against the Gamecocks last year stunned the favorites.

Originally Published: 07 APR 24 09:00 ET
Updated: 07 APR 24 19:55 ET

(CNN) — The women’s NCAA basketball tournament has been full of star power, with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark front and center.

But there wasn’t a team as loaded as South Carolina’s.

Related: Utah Rush, state’s only competition-level wheelchair basketball team, going for gold

For the third time, the Gamecocks are national champions, defeating Iowa 87-75, completing a perfect 38-0 season and preventing Clark from having the perfect end to her college career.

The win also avenges South Carolina’s loss to Iowa in last year’s Final Four, the team’s only loss that season. The Gamecocks are now 109-3 in the last three seasons.

For the second year in a row, Iowa and Clark have come up short in the national championship game, losing to LSU a year ago.

This was Clark’s final game in an Iowa unform before heading to the WNBA, where she is expected to be the top pick in the draft April 15. Clark finished with a game-high 30 points.

South Carolina freshman Tessa Johnson, coming off the bench, had a career-high 19 points. Senior center Kamilla Cardoso, also WNBA-bound, pulled in a career-high 17 rebounds to go with 15 points.

Cardoso, who also had three blocked shots, was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player.

“Kamilla Cardoso was not going to let us lose a game in the NCAA tournament,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said.

Te-Hina Paopao had 14 points, while Chloe Kitts added 11 points and 10 rebounds.

South Carolina is now 3-0 in national championship games. The other titles came in 2017 and 2022, all under Staley.

On Sunday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, the best team beat the team that had the best player. Clark, despite all the accolades she’s received, will leave Iowa as a two-time national runner-up.

With 20.2 seconds to go, Clark was subbed off the court and received a resounding ovation from the crowd.

“For me, just the emotions will probably hit me over the next couple days,” Clark said. “I don’t have much time to sit around and sulk and be upset. I don’t think that’s what I’m about either.

“Yeah, I’m sad we lost this game, but I’m also so proud of myself, I’m so proud of my teammates, I’m so proud of this program. There’s a lot to be proud of.

“But there’s going to be tears. It is sad this is all over, and this is the last time I’m going to put on an Iowa jersey.

“I think just reflecting back and soaking in everything that I was able to do, because basically anybody other than me and Coach (Lisa) Bluder never thought this was possible.”

Staley, while being interviewed by ESPN after the win, could not immediately find words and was overcome by emotion. Later, during the celebration on court, she made a point to address Clark.

“I really would just like to say that I have to congratulate Iowa on an incredible season,” Staley said. “Awesome. Awesome.

“And I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport. And it’s not going to stop here on the collegiate tour, but when she is the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, she’s going to lift that league up as well.

“So Caitlin Clark, if you’re out there, you are one of the GOATs of our game and we appreciate you.”

A year ago, South Carolina’s Raven Johnson was on the wrong end of a viral moment when the two teams played against each other in the Final Four. In that 2023 game, Clark, who was in the paint, can be seen waiving off defending the South Carolina guard, who was by herself in three-point territory.

On Sunday, the sophomore, who picked up guarding Clark during the game, finished with four steals – including one that went viral on X when she picked off Clark in the final seconds of the first half – and two blocks.

“All I have to say is the revenge tour is over,” Raven Johnson said.

Despite being the top overall seed, the lone women’s college basketball team undefeated and a loaded roster with depth, South Carolina seemingly flew under the radar while continuing its dominance.

While the spotlight was on Clark, South Carolina just kept winning.

South Carolina bench steps up

Iowa came out firing, starting the game with a 10-0 lead and led by as many as 11 in the first quarter.

Clark scored 18 points in the first quarter. According to ESPN, that’s the most points in any quarter by a single player in the national championship game.

But Clark cooled off considerably in the second quarter, going 1-for-6 from the field with three points – and South Carolina showcased its depth, closed the gap, seized momentum and took a 49-46 lead into halftime.

The Gamecocks’ push continued into the third quarter, capping an 11-0 run to take a 55-46 lead. They’d later extend the lead to 14.

Iowa cut South Carolina’s lead to 57-55 with a layup from Clark, but the Hawkeyes could get no closer.

The Gamecocks bench outscored Iowa’s bench 37-0 in the game.

“I wanted to win. Our team, we want to win.” Tessa Johnson said. “My teammates are just encouraging, always having my back, telling me, ‘Play how you play.’ So I just did that.”

Women’s tournament lived up to the hype

There was a ton of hype ahead of the women’s NCAA tournament, and it lived up to it with the action that has taken place the last few weeks.

The focus mainly had been Clark, but stars like UConn’s Paige Bueckers, LSU’s Angel Reese and USC’s JuJu Watkins stepped up and had huge NCAA tournament performances. The Gamecocks’ top scorer and rebounder, Cardoso, is projected to be a top-five WNBA draft pick.

Clark continued to set records her senior season, including becoming the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball. For the second consecutive season, Clark has been named the Naismith national player of the year, named the Associated Press player of the year and won the Wade Trophy, awarded to the best player in women’s college basketball.

In 17 career NCAA tournament games, Clark set NCAA records in points (491), assists (152) and three-point field goals (78). She is the first player in NCAA women’s basketball history to lead the country in scoring and make the title game.

Entering’s Sunday’s championship game, Clark and the Hawkeyes have the top three most-viewed women’s college basketball games of all time: Friday’s Final Four win against UConn (14.2 million), their Elite Eight win against LSU (12.3 million) and last year’s national championship game against LSU (9.9 million).

“When I think about women’s basketball going forward, obviously it’s just going to continue to grow, whether it’s at the WNBA level, whether it’s at the college level,” Clark said. “Everybody sees it. Everybody knows. Everybody sees the viewership numbers.

“When you’re given an opportunity, women’s sports just kind of thrives.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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South Carolina gets revenge against Caitlin Clark and Iowa, wins 3rd women’s national championship