DALLAS — On Friday morning, trying to fill the slow hours before the biggest game in program history, Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen decided to see her boss. She went to Hawkeyes head coach Lisa Bluder’s hotel suite, and for a few long moments, the pair sat in uncharacteristic silence. Bluder was the one to break it.
We’re the only people who think we can do this.
“Yeah,” Jensen responded. “But that’s the only people that matter.”
Some of that was simple confidence, the kind of ordinary belief needed to fuel any upset victory. But some of it was rooted in specifics. They believed No. 2 Iowa could knock off undefeated reigning champion No. 1 South Carolina in the Final Four because they had a detailed game plan to compete with the Gamecocks’ size by packing the paint and forcing them to take outside shots. And they believed because they had something else their opponent did not. Iowa had Caitlin Clark. This part was not a belief so much as a bone-deep certainty: Against the best defense in the country, on the biggest stage of her career, Clark would shine. That was simply how she worked.
Their belief turned out to be well-placed.
Iowa made South Carolina look uncomfortable all night. The Hawkeyes scored first and led for all but two minutes—even if never by very much. Their game plan worked, and so, too, did their star junior guard. In the sort of transcendent performance she makes look routine, Clark scored 41 points with eight assists and six rebounds. (She is the first player in NCAA tournament history with back-to-back games of 40 points or more.) When the buzzer sounded, Clark was the one with the ball, and she tossed it into the air with joyous, cathartic abandon: Iowa 77, South Carolina 73. Her work was done for the night.
Clark was responsible for all 18 of Iowa’s fourth-quarter points, via either score or assist, and she scored the final 13.
“You can just see it in her eyes,” Jensen said. “She just—she leans into moments. She wants the moments.”
She got this one. Even so, it was striking just how much was shared with the other Hawkeyes, too.
“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… Everybody did their role.”
For center Monika Czinano, that meant a calm, consistent presence in the post, finishing with 18 points. (“If we could have probably allowed Czinano to have a little less opportunities, it could have flipped the other way,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “She was the one that put them over the top with her contributions.”) For Gabbie Marshall, that meant intense, scrambling defense, including three key steals. For Kate Martin—“the player who does all the dirty work, sets people up,” per Clark—it meant seven boards.
Iowa’s strategy was clear from the jump: It was going to crowd the post and force South Carolina to leave its comfort zone. Just 16.5% of the Gamecocks’ points came from three-pointers this year—351st out of 361 Division I programs. But Iowa was going to clog the paint so much that South Carolina had to shoot from beyond the arc. This strategy was partially analytics and partially a kind of psychological warfare.
“It’s definitely harder to shoot when you’re that wide open,” Martin said. “You’ve naturally got more time to think.”
Iowa knew it might be hard for South Carolina because the Hawkeyes expected it to be hard for themselves. They’d discussed this before the game with one of their sports psychologists: With Clark expected to draw multiple defenders, Iowa wanted everyone else prepared to shoot wide open. But they found themselves flipping the idea around to their defense. The Hawkeyes felt they were ready to take those outside shots from wide open. But they had a suspicion the Gamecocks might not be.
For the most part, they were correct. Only Zia Cooke, the best pure shooter on the Gamecocks, was able to execute and finish the first half in double digits. (She had 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting and ended the night with 24.) But Iowa’s strategy appeared to rattle everyone else. Perhaps the best sign of how much the style threw the Gamecocks off their usual game? They had Olivia Thompson check in twice during the first half. Yes, Thompson, the former walk-on who averages just four minutes a game, typically all near the end of the night when the outcome is all but official. But Thompson can shoot the three-ball, and with this kind of defensive pressure in the paint, South Carolina was trying everything it could to stretch its range.
“I thought, when they were going there, That’s not what they like to do,” Jensen said of seeing Thompson. “That was like—if you’re playing chess, well, we just got our queen moved up pretty fast in pretty good position.”
The game plan was drawn up primarily by special assistant Jenni Fitzgerald. The coaching staff knew that it was somewhat of a gamble: If South Carolina did come out with those shots falling, Iowa would have to figure out something else, because they knew how much they were giving up against a team that was bigger and stronger in the paint. The Gamecocks did see some more of those threes fall eventually. (Redshirt freshman guard Raven Johnson came off the bench and was 3-of-6 from beyond the arc.) But it wasn’t enough.
Iowa was further helped by South Carolina foul trouble. The Gamecocks average just 14.4 fouls a game with incredible discipline. But in the first half alone, they had nine, including two for Aliyah Boston. That put the three-time Defensive Player of the Year on the bench for the entirety of the second quarter and limited her to zero points and three rebounds in the first half. She was able to be more typically productive in the second half. But Iowa was already in control.
One area where Iowa knew it could not compete with South Carolina was the glass. (Such is life against a team deep enough to have 6’7” Kamilla Cardoso come off the bench.) “Nobody said we were going to outrebound them,” Clark said. “That would have been a lie.” The Gamecocks finished with 26 offensive boards. Iowa had just five. But one of those helped seal the game. With Iowa up by two with 21 seconds to play, Clark missed a three, and the ball came down with Hawkeyes senior McKenna Warnock.
“Amazing,” Martin said. “It was the biggest rebound of the game.”
That eventually set up the final possession for Clark. She dribbled out the final second and a half, and as her teammates descended, Clark took a moment to face the crowd. She struck a pose, alone under the lights, arms outstretched. It was too loud for anyone to hear. But her message was clear.
This is what you came for.
“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?” Clark said. “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.”
Did anything from this upset surprise them?
One thing, Bluder said: That morning hotel conversation with Jensen happened before either of them had been dressed for the game. Jensen arrived at the arena separately to scout, and they didn’t see each other until shortly before tipoff, when they realized something. They’d accidentally dressed as twins in identical black blazers.
“She walked in like 10 minutes before the game, and I said, Oh, no,” Bluder joked of seeing Jensen’s outfit. “Everybody else has fashion people and makeup people. I’ve got a Revlon flatiron in my hotel room. So that’s about as far as I go.”
The flatiron will stay out for now. She has to get dressed for one more game.