Leistikow: A historic moment for Caitlin Clark and Iowa women's basketball

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

DALLAS − Friday began with Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark getting a shout-out and motivating message from one of her sports heroes.

“The job’s not done,” Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes told her and the Hawkeye women’s basketball team via Twitter. “Go win a championship.”

More:Iowa women's basketball stuns South Carolina, now one win from a national title

Now Clark and the Hawkeyes are incredibly one step from doing just that.

Caitlin Clark rises for 2 points in the NCAA semifinals against South Carolina.

Iowa accomplished the unthinkable Friday night at American Airlines Center, using a passionate effort and fantastic game plan to chop down top-ranked South Carolina, 77-73, to reach Sunday’s NCAA championship game against Kim Mulkey-coached LSU.

The message to Clark was fueled by Hy-Vee, which sponsors her and Mahomes. Also appearing in the video were Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, IndyCar driver Christian Lundgaard, actor Mark Wahlberg and former Iowa men’s star Luka Garza.

What they said underscored Clark’s mentality: That she was thrilled to lead Iowa to its first Final Four since 1993. But that Clark and the Hawkeyes were here to win two more games and capture the school’s first NCAA basketball championship, for the men or women.

Even though her 3-point shot was off by her standards (5-for-17), Clark was dazzling. She answered the call with the nation's eyes on her. Clark scored 41 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out eight assists. She scored 16 of Iowa's 18 points in the decisive fourth quarter.

Monika Czinano, her longtime pick-and-roll buddy, was outstanding as well despite playing with foul trouble all night. Czinano got the better of South Carolina star Aliyah Boston, scoring 18 clutch points. Boston was held to eight points on 2-for-9 shooting by Iowa's sagging defense.

More:Leistikow: How Iowa's Caitlin Clark became 'un-guardable' and reached Final Four at top of her game

Yes, Iowa packed it in against the Gamecocks (36-1) before 19,288 rowdy fans in downtown Dallas, daring them to shoot the 3-pointer. Though South Carolina, as usual, owned the boards, a cold-shooting night from long range (4-for-20) helped Iowa play with lead most of the way. South Carolina never led by more than one point, and never regained the lead after Clark's ice-in-her-veins 3 with 8:52 to go.

And when the horn sounded, South Carolina's 42-game winning streak was over. As Boston said afterward, that horn marked the end of an era for South Carolina.

And a new height for Iowa, which was headed to the title game.

Only one Iowa team – the 1956 men – has gotten to this point before. Those Hawkeyes fell to Bill Russell-led San Francisco in the title game.

More:How to watch, stream and listen to Iowa women's basketball in the NCAA championship game

Lisa Bluder's Hawkeyes have become the first Division I women’s program in the state of Iowa to reach the NCAA championship, which will tip off at 2:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC.

South Carolina fans have to feel similarly to how Iowa fans felt when top-ranked wrestler Spencer Lee was not only upset, but pinned in the NCAA semifinals two Friday nights ago. Lee was on his way to an expected national title and had a 58-match winning streak snapped; the Gamecocks had won 42 in a row, most of the wins in decisive fashion, on their way to what most expected would be another NCAA title. This giant of the sport falling was akin to UNLV going down to Duke in the 1991 men's tournament, or Kentucky to Wisconsin in 2015 − apparent second-title coronations that ended with shocking semifinal results.

More:Recap: Iowa basketball topples South Carolina, will head to national title game

Clark and the Hawkeyes came into this game confident. They stated Thursday that they believed they could win, and why not? They already had beaten a pair of No. 2-ranked teams earlier this season (Ohio State on Jan. 23, Indiana on Feb. 26) and ousted reigning Final Four entrant Louisville on the way here.

And they have the best player in women's basketball on their side.

Much like Mahomes has proven to be a gamer on his sport's highest level, so has Clark on hers.

Clark, a die-hard Chiefs fan, channeled her Mahomes-level magic from the get-go. She accounted for 19 of Iowa's 22 first-quarter points with 11 points and four assists. Two of those points came as the 2023 Naismith Trophy winner drove around the 2022 Naismith winner (Boston) for two points with a scoop layup. That was a statement.

Clark's 19-point, six-assist first half delivered the Hawkeyes a 38-37 halftime edge. She was sensational, captivating the folks who were tuning in around the nation in what was anticipated to be the most-watched women's basketball game ever.

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Iowa would go on to win this instant classic.

And now a chance at more history.

Only one team from the Big Ten Conference (Purdue in 1999) has won an NCAA women's basketball title since it was sanctioned in 1982. The Hawkeyes (31-6) have successfully derailed South Carolina's repeat bid.

Now they'll look to stand alone atop women's basketball, with their clutch superstar leading them.

"We didn't come this far just to play in the national championship game. We're here to win it," Clark said. "We're here to hoist the trophy. We're here to cut down another championship net."

More:What the sports world is saying about Caitlin Clark after 41-point performance in Final Four

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.