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Caitlin Clark and Iowa are heading back to the women’s national title game, will face South Carolina

<i>Steph Chambers/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Paige Bueckers and Nika Muhl hug after UConn's victory over USC in the Elite Eight round.
Steph Chambers/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Paige Bueckers and Nika Muhl hug after UConn's victory over USC in the Elite Eight round.

By Jill Martin, CNN

(CNN) — Caitlin Clark’s final game in an Iowa uniform will be with a national championship on the line. And it’s going to come against a team potentially on the verge of a dynasty.

No. 1 Iowa narrowly advanced to the women’s NCAA tournament national championship game after surviving a scare from No. 3 Connecticut, 71-69, in the Final Four at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on Friday.

The Hawkeyes will face undefeated and No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in Sunday’s title game. The Gamecocks, powered by their center Kamilla Cardoso and a strong third quarter, defeated No. 3 NC State 78-59 in the earlier semifinal of the night.

In 2023, Clark and the Hawkeyes came up short in the national title game, losing to Angel Reese and LSU 102-85. This time, Clark – in a record-breaking season – could end her college career as a champion and give Iowa its first national title in women’s or men’s basketball.

Among the records she has set, Clark has the most career points in Division I history for women and men. Seen as a generational talent, the 22-year-old is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft on April 15.

South Carolina, now 108-3 in the last three seasons, is back in the national championship game for the first time since 2022, when it won the national title for the second time in program history. This is the Gamecocks’ fourth consecutive Final Four appearance and a chance for them to win their third national title in seven years.

A year ago, South Carolina’s lone loss of the season came against Iowa, in the Final Four.

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

Clark overcomes poor first-half shooting

Against UConn, Clark overcame a poor first-half shooting performance to finish with 21 points. Hannah Stuelke had a game-high 23 points.

There was anticipation that Friday night’s game between Iowa and UConn could be a shooting showcase between Clark and Huskies star Paige Bueckers.

Instead, Clark and Iowa had to overcome a gritty UConn defense and a Huskies’ team that would not go away.

Clark failed to make a three-point shot in the first half, going 0-for-6, and was held to six points in the first two quarters.

In the first half, Iowa turned the ball over 12 times, while UConn had 11 steals and led by as many as 12 points.

But Iowa pulled close as the half wound down. The Huskies went into halftime with a 32-26 lead. By the end of the third quarter, it was tied at 51-51.

At first, it looked like Iowa was going to pull away in the fourth. But UConn stayed in it, and a three-pointer by Nika Mühl cut Iowa’s lead to 70-69 with 49 seconds to go. A steal by KK Arnold gave UConn the ball with 9.3 seconds left, but an offensive foul – a controversial call – on Aaliyah Edwards gave the ball back to the Hawkeyes.

Bueckers fouled Clark with 3.1 seconds left. Clark made her first free throw to make it 71-69, but she missed the second. The teams battled for the ball, and Iowa retained it by having the possession arrow. With a successful inbounds play, Iowa hung on for the win.

Bueckers and Edwards each finished with 17 points. Arnold had 14.

It was an NCAA-record 23rd Final Four appearance – and 15th in the last 16 NCAA tournaments – for the 11-time national champion Huskies, all under head coach Geno Auriemma.

But it might have been the most unlikely Final Four trip of them all, as UConn, decimated by injuries this season, had a depleted roster. The Huskies got hot during the NCAA tournament, reaching the Final Four by outdueling No. 1 USC.

“UConn is a really good defensive team, one of the best defensive teams we’ve seen all year,” Clark said. “I think Nika did a tremendous job guarding me.

“We got some good looks. They just didn’t go in. And sometimes that’s just what happens. We missed some easy bunnies around the rim.

“But I think the best thing about our group is we went into the locker room at halftime and it wasn’t, like, oh, come on, you’ve got to make shots. It was, no, stop turning the ball over and you’re going to be perfectly fine.

“We knew at some point our shots would go down. We put up 45 points in the second half, 25 in the third quarter. Came out in the fourth quarter, started really hot.

“So I don’t think it was like a freaking out about offense not working. I think it was just a it will come around. We didn’t execute great, and we were only down six. We felt really confident in that. Nobody panicked. Everybody knew we just needed to clean it up a little bit, and that’s exactly what we did.”

South Carolina keeps winning, Kamilla Cardoso dominant

Despite being the top overall seed, the lone women’s college basketball team undefeated, and a roster with depth, No. 1 South Carolina has seemingly flown under the radar throughout the NCAA tournament.

Perhaps that will change Sunday.

With the win against NC State on Friday, South Carolina is now 37-0. To get to 38-0, the Gamecocks will have to take down Clark and the Hawkeyes.

In Friday’s Final Four win, South Carolina’s Cardoso, who on Monday announced she would enter the WNBA draft, finished with 22 points, going 10-of-12 from the field, to go with 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-7-inch center started the game 6-for-6 from the field and led all scorers with 16 in the first half.

There was cause of concern, however, with just over 2 minutes to go before halftime. Cardoso came up limping after attempting to drive to the basket and hobbled to the locker room with 1:39 left in the quarter. South Carolina took a 32-31 lead into the break.

But Cardoso would return for the start of the second half, and South Carolina came out firing, outscoring the Wolfpack 29-6 in the third quarter and ending the period on a 17-1 run.

By then, the game was out of reach at 61-37, and head coach Dawn Staley kept Cardoso on the bench for the fourth quarter.

“I mean, you play to your strengths,” Staley told reporters. “Kamilla is a strength of ours. She’s 6’7”. She’s agile. She can command the paint. She plays with a desire to win.”

Staley later said of Cardoso: “Greatness is a process. And she’s still very much in, I think, in the beginning stages of her greatness. I think you’ll see her play a lot better when she’s with pro players.”

Ashlyn Watkins pulled in 20 rebounds to go with eight points, while Raven Johnson had 13 points and five assists. Te-Hina Paopao added 10 points and six assists.

This has been an NCAA tournament full of star power, with Iowa’s Clark, UConn’s Bueckers, LSU’s Reese and USC’s JuJu Watkins, just to name a few. Meanwhile, South Carolina just keeps winning.

For NC State, a dream season ends at 31-7. This was the Wolfpack’s second trip to the Final Four and the first since 1998.

Aziaha James led NC State with 20 points.

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