South Carolina beats Iowa, Caitlin Clark to win national championship, complete undefeated season

CLEVELAND — She left the court for the final time, her head held high.

She left a court that bears no resemblance to the one she first walked onto at Iowa.

She left as a tall tale, standing 6-feet tall, tattooed on the hearts and minds of millions.

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark reacts during the loss to South Carolina. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

She left as the most influential and popular player her sport has ever seen, a collegiate collage of Babe Ruth, Bobby Orr, Steph Curry and Salvador Dali, redefining the unimaginable.

She left wanting more.

Caitlin Clark’s celebrated run at Iowa ended Sunday without a national championship, as the Hawkeyes were unable to replicate last year’s upset of unbeaten South Carolina, falling 87-75 in the title game at a sold-out Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Dawn Staley celebrates after South Carolina completed a perfect season. USA TODAY Sports

“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,” Clark said. “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.

“It’s really hard to win these things. I think I probably know that better than most people by now. To be so close twice, it definitely hurts, but at the same time, we were right there.

“South Carolina is so good. There’s only so much you can do.”

South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso hugs head coach Dawn Staley as the Gamecocks defeat Iowa to win the national championship on Sunday. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (22) walks off the court in her final college game after losing to South Carolina. Getty Images

Clark, who lost in Iowa’s first-ever national title game last year against LSU, finished her final game in black and gold with 30 points, eight rebounds and five assists, eclipsing Chamique Holdscaw’s all-time NCAA Tournament scoring record.

No. 1 (38-0) South Carolina, which suffered its only loss of the past two seasons against Iowa at last year’s Final Four, has claimed two of the past three national championships.

“I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She carried a heavy load for our sport. You are one of the GOATs of our games and we appreciate you.”

No. 1 Iowa (34-5) believed the ending would be different, leading 7-0 before Clark took her first shot.

South Carolina trailed by seven points after the first quarter before defeating Iowa for the national championship. AP

Clark then channeled Wilt Chamberlain, scoring 13 straight — as Iowa took an 11-point lead — en route to a tournament-record 18 first-quarter points.

“When she came in as a freshman and she said, ‘We’re going to the Final Four,’ a lot of people laughed at her and maybe even laughed at her for coming to Iowa, quite honestly,” coach Lisa Bluder said. “But she believed, we believed, and she got everybody else in that locker room to believe. And that is not an easy thing to do.

“I think that she has done amazing things to grow our game and done it the right way.”

Clark shot 5-for-8 in the first quarter, but 5-for-20 afterwards, as the nation’s top defense and deepest roster kept throwing fresh legs at her.

South Carolina secured the first perfect season in women’s college basketball since 2015-16. USA TODAY Sports

Freshman Tessa Johnson scored a career-high 19 points, while 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso (15 points, 17 rebounds) treated the Hawkeyes like children who wandered onto the floor.

South Carolina saw a 14-point lead sliced to five with 4:12 remaining, but Iowa wouldn’t score again, ending the suspense in what’s expected to be the most-watched game in the sport’s history.

South Carolina guard Tessa Johnson reacts during a win over Iowa on Sunday. Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

“I think that’s been the coolest thing for me on this journey, we started our season playing in front of 55,000 people in Kinnick Stadium and now we’re ending it playing in [front of] probably 15 million people or more on TV,” Clark said. “People will probably remember our two Final Fours and things like that, but people aren’t going to remember every single win or every single loss. I think they’re just going to remember the moments that they shared at one of our games or watching on TV or how excited their young daughter or son got about watching women’s basketball. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Clark kept looking up at the clock, watching the best four years of her life melt away.

She looked to the refs and she looked to the ceiling, looking for help her teammates could not provide.

She left the court one time, to a standing ovation with 20.2 seconds remaining, forcing a smile and holding back tears.

She then left the court for the final time, with someone else’s confetti falling on her head again.

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