'You're good enough to do this': How an unwavering belief carried Iowa past South Carolina

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

DALLAS — Lisa Bluder locked eyes with her starting five that has redefined veteran moxie, and left them with a succinct but powerful message before they took the Final Four floor.

“You’re good enough to do this,” Bluder said.

And she nailed it.

Iowa’s effort was impeccable, its game plan spot-on to topple the basketball monster that is South Carolina. More than anything, though, these Hawkeyes never wavered in the belief that this was their moment to seize.

Iowa did it in riveting fashion, fighting through the Gamecocks’ size advantage with a relentless pick-and-roll offense plus plenty of Caitlin Clark moments that will live forever in Hawkeye history. Friday’s final product was a 77-73 win that stunningly sends Iowa into Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. title game on ABC, where Bluder’s squad will get an LSU team that defeated Virginia Tech in the first national semifinal.

"Probably everybody in America picked South Carolina, deservedly so. They've been ranked No. 1 all year. They've won 42 straight basketball games. Why wouldn't you pick them?" said Clark, who dazzled with 41 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

"But at the same time, the people in our locker room believed in us. That's all you need is a belief in one another, a confidence in one another. We just do it for the person to our left and our right."

For all the Gamecocks’ accolades and attention, South Carolina (36-1) had little experience with the tense tournament energy that kicks in when your season suddenly hangs in the balance. If Iowa (31-6) could at least get South Carolina to that point late in Friday’s game, the Hawkeyes had a chance to ride their nothing-to-lose energy all the way to the finish line.

That’s exactly what Iowa did.

The Hawkeyes played from ahead essentially the entire way, only briefly surrendering their second-half lead early in the fourth quarter for 13 seconds before snatching it right back. When winning time came around, Iowa had three-plus quarters of confidence that it could finish off what few thought any team could accomplish.

In guiding Iowa through a fourth quarter that required response after response with little room to breathe, Clark showed why she's taking over the sport with one pivotal bucket after another.

Even with her 3-pointers not falling at the pace she likes, Clark displayed the growth and basketball understanding she’s improved upon with blow-by drives and timely assists. She delivered 16 of the Hawkeyes' 18 fourth-quarter points, including the final 13, while taking all but one of Iowa's shots in the closing period.

Yet when it came time to close things down, two simple free throws were all that stood between Clark and a raucous celebration that's been building all week. The final two of her game-high 41 points swished through the net with 8.1 seconds remaining, handing Iowa the four-point lead it finished with.

"The biggest thing is knowing how much my teammates trust me," Clark said. "I was given the ball in kind of the biggest moments of the game on the biggest stage, but also at the same time, my teammates really came through and played huge minutes."

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrates a three point shot during the NCAA Women's Final Four semifinals basketball game in Dallas, Friday, March 31, 2023.

Getting to that all-important four-point cushion in the waning moments saw the Hawkeyes steal a South Carolina special. With Iowa owning a 73-71 advantage with possession as the clocked ticked under 20 seconds, Clark launched a deep trey that seemed destined for a game-clinching splash.

Although the shot nearly banked in, it clanked so hard off the backboard and rim that McKenna Warnock found herself in perfect position for the season's most pivotal rebound. In that moment, it hardly mattered South Carolina nearly doubled up the Hawkeyes on the glass. It didn't mean anything that Iowa grabbed five offensive rebounds to the Gamecocks' 26.

South Carolina’s flawless ledger and dominance atop the national rankings weren't saving the Gamecocks on this night. Desperation poured from their bench as a magical season slipped away. Warnock tossed the ball back out to Clark, who capped this unforgettable Iowa night with her charity-stripe clincher.

"I'm glad I could come up with that one," Warnock said. "It kind of fell in my lap. That's what we wanted in those moments. We wanted some of those to bounce our way. I'm glad it did in that moment, and I'm glad Caitlin knocked those free throws down."

Any lingering questions about whether the moment would overwhelm these Final Four newbies was answered in a matter of minutes.

For a South Carolina team that looks to successfully suck the life out of every game, it was imperative the Hawkeyes avoid an early hole. The Gamecocks haven’t played from behind much this season, yet Iowa made them do so for almost the entire first half.

With Aliyah Boston neutralized early after picking up two first-quarter fouls, Clark and the Hawkeyes saw their chance to pounce.

The national player of the year dropped in 19 points and six assists in the first half, draining three treys while burning South Carolina on the high screen-and-roll with mostly wide-open dishes to Monika Czinano. Despite playing just 27 minutes as she slogged through the inevitable foul trouble South Carolina generated, Iowa's all-Big Ten center poured in 18 crucial points on only eight shots.

"I think it was really coming out of the paint," Czinano said. "I couldn't really do what I normally did and just post up down there. I had to come out and set ball screens and try to expose the screen and roll, and I think that worked out pretty well for us."

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrates a win over South Carolina during the NCAA Women's Final Four semifinals basketball game in Dallas, Friday, March 31, 2023.

Still, the Gamecocks make it hard to find any comfort. An Iowa lead as large as nine vanished before the halftime buzzer. South Carolina seemed ready for a push after snagging a 60-59 advantage early in the fourth.

This Iowa team is built different, though, with Clark at the controls. There’s a different edge, a different belief, a different confidence that previously didn't exist at a place like Iowa.

And it may just carry the Hawkeyes all the way to a national title.

"All we did was believe," Clark said, "and go out and achieve it."

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.