With 'nothing to lose and everything to prove', Iowa women's basketball charges into South Carolina showdown

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

DALLAS — They know they’ll need a near-flawless performance to topple this women’s basketball beast. And perhaps obtaining that will be too tough enough to keep this magical Iowa season going.

But when diving into the intangible elements in play for Friday’s Final Four showdown between the Hawkeyes and undefeated South Carolina, it’s very clear these squads will be taking the American Airlines Center floor with different levels of pressure.

Iowa has arrived in Dallas as the Final Four darling, having not reached this round in 30 years. The Gamecocks, meanwhile, have shouldered championship weight all season as the reigning national champion looking to go back-to-back with a spotless campaign. As Iowa searches for every advantage to possibly pull off this stunner, a “nothing to lose” mindset has kept the Hawkeyes from being overwhelmed by the situation so far.

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“Just go out there and play free and have fun,” Iowa standout Caitlin Clark said. “You’re on one of the biggest stages. This is what you’ve dreamed of, so why not just enjoy every single second? Don’t put pressure on yourself, and just soak it all in.”

It’s been a balancing act of sorts since the Hawkeyes arrived in Dallas after stomping through Seattle. The Final Four festivities and ample media attention began almost the second Iowa stepped off the plane. For a group experiencing all this for the first time, it’s hard to argue the Hawkeyes shouldn’t be basking in the moment at every possible chance.

At the same time, this is a veteran unit not used to settling for moral victories. They’ve spent the last two seasons as one of the Big Ten’s best, navigating through a treacherous conference while absorbing every foe’s best shot. To now be one win away from playing for a national championship isn’t a scenario that comes along very often — or ever — for many quality programs.

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“We’ve never experienced all this, so it’s definitely been a busy couple days,” senior McKenna Warnock said. “I don’t think we realized how busy it actually was until we got here. We were gone all day (Wednesday) doing media stuff. It’s such a cool experience also.

“A lot of it right now at the end of the season is more so mental preparation. We’ve done a good job talking about that and making sure we’re watching film on our own time with the coaches. A lot of (the preparation) can’t be physical right now. We can’t be on the floor as much as we want to be. But I think as long as we have that mental preparation, that’s the best thing.”

Caitlin Clark warms up during practice in Dallas the day before the Hawkeyes take on No. 1 South Carolina in the Final Four.

Aiding that was Iowa’s decision to fly straight from Seattle to Dallas, thus avoiding an Iowa City avalanche of admiration along with streamlining the transition from Elite Eight to Final Four.

There will be plenty of time for love when the Hawkeyes return home. But for now, tamping down positive noise is as important as ever.

“If we had gone back to Iowa, we would’ve probably been hyped up too much by fans and people who are proud of us,” fan-favorite sharpshooter Gabbie Marshall said. “I think being here and staying in our tight circle didn’t give us a way to be unfocused. We’ve always just focused on our circle.”

Fitting, considering Iowa being in this underdog role really is a full-circle development with this cohesive group.

Aside from a few sporadic games over the last two seasons, the Hawkeyes really haven’t been viewed this way since their 2021 Sweet 16 game against Connecticut. That was the culmination of a finding-their-way season, which saw a freshman Clark and the rest of this starting five reach the Big Ten Tournament title game as a 6-seed and the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend as a 5-seed.        

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It’s a spot this elite run originated from — and one the Hawkeyes have no issues returning to.

“I personally love being the underdog,” Marshall said. “We’ve been saying we have nothing to lose and everything to prove. Going out there and knowing we have literally nothing to lose, (South Carolina) should be winning this game. It makes you want to play harder to win that game.

“It’s going to be hard, but we can do this.”

Aside from two overtime regular-season games that tested South Carolina, the Gamecocks haven’t experienced that tense, season-at-stake energy at any point this year.

While it’ll take Iowa’s best product and potentially some luck to put South Carolina in that position Friday, the Hawkeyes know how they’ll act if given that opportunity.       

“Why not go out there and have fun and be confident?” Clark said.  "That’s exactly what has carried us through this tournament. We have a confidence about us that we can do it. That’s half the battle sometimes — you just have to be confident that you can go into the game and win.”  

Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com.