DALLAS – Caitlin Clark tossed the ball high in the air as the clock ticked down, gave a huge shout-out to her adoring fans and then took off on a gleeful gallop around the court.
In the biggest matchup of her life, the dazzling point guard from Iowa had done it all -- poured in 41 points to set a record for the highest-scoring NCAA Tournament semifinal, ended the perfect season of South Carolina and, most importantly, put her Hawkeyes into the championship game.
Clark overwhelmed the reigning champions with another sensational show from start to finish, helping Iowa stop the Gamecocks' 42-game winning streak 77-73 on Friday night in the Final Four.
“We had nothing to lose. I have all the confidence in the world in this group, and they believe right back in me, and that’s all you need,” Clark said. ”All we do is believe in one another and we love each other to death, and that’s what a true team is. If you want an example of a team, that’s what this is.”
The spectacular junior became the first women's player to post back-to-back 40-point performances in the NCAA Tournament. She now has the Hawkeyes in a spot they've never been in before — one victory away from a national championship.
They'll have to beat another SEC team to do that as Iowa (31-6) will face LSU in the title game on Sunday afternoon. The Tigers beat Virginia Tech in the other national semifinal.
It’s the Tigers' first appearance in the title game as Kim Mulkey became the second coach to take two different teams to the championship game.
“I love me some Caitlin Clark,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We’ve been talking about being mission-focused a lot this year, and we had a game plan and these guys executed so well. That is South Carolina we just beat, folks. Amazing.”
Thanks to the riveting play of Clark and the historic year by South Carolina, this was one of the most talked about and highly anticipated matchups in women’s Final Four history,
The game lived up to the hype surrounding it— the best player vs. the best team — much to the delight of the sellout crowd of over 19,000 fans.
“Tonight showed how fun women’s basketball is," Clark said. "I’m sure some people wished this was a series of seven games.”
Coach Dawn Staley and South Carolina (36-1) had kept on winning since taking last year's title.
“I don’t think we felt pressure to win the game, we just didn’t perform,” Staley said. “And that hasn’t been us all season long.”
“I don’t think our players felt pressure, any other pressures besides wanting to win another basketball game,” she said.
This was Iowa’s first appearance in the Final Four in 30 years. The last time the Hawkeyes advanced this far was 1993 under coach C. Vivian Stringer, whose team lost to Ohio State in overtime.
Clark wowed the crowd that included Harper Stribe, a young fan of the team who has been battling cancer. She was featured in a surprise video that informed the Hawkeyes’ star that she was the AP Player of the Year.
Clark has created quite a stir since going to college in her home state. She led the nation in scoring twice and last weekend had a game for the ages, recording the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA history to lead the Hawkeyes to the Final Four.
Now she has them on the doorstep of more history.
Trailing 59-55 entering the fourth quarter, South Carolina scored the first five points to take the lead. Clark answered right back with two deep 3-pointers and an assist to Monika Czinano to give the Hawkeyes a 67-62 lead.
South Carolina got within 69-68 on Raven Johnson’s 3-pointer before Clark got a steal for a layup with 3:32 left. Neither team scored again until star Aliyah Boston was fouled with 1:37 left. She made the second of two free throws.
Clark then scored another layup on the other end out of a timeout to make it a four-point game. After a layup by Zia Cooke with 58 seconds left, the Hawkeyes ran the clock down with McKenna Warnock grabbing a huge offensive rebound off a Clark miss with 18 seconds remaining.
Clark hit two free throws after South Carolina fouled her with 13.5 seconds left. They were her 38th and 39th point, moving her past Nneka Ogwumike for the most in a Final Four semifinal game.
After a putback by Johnson with 9.9 seconds left got the Gamecocks within 75-73, Clark sealed the game with two more free throws.
The loss ended a tremendous season for the defending champion Gamecocks, who were trying to become the 10th team to go through a season unbeaten.
“It was physical. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” Clark said. “They’re a tremendous team, they’ve had a tremendous year, obviously so well-coached.”
Cooke led the Gamecocks with 24 points. Slowed by foul trouble, Boston had just eight points and 10 rebounds as the Hawkeyes packed the paint, brazenly daring South Carolina to shoot from the outside. The defense seemed to bamboozle the Gamecocks, who finished 4 for 20 from behind the 3-point line. They couldn't take advantage of their 49-25 rebounding edge that included 26 offensive boards.
Clark became the sixth player to score over 1,000 points in a season. She joined former Hawkeyes star Megan Gustafson, breaking her school mark of 1,001. Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist also reached that milestone this season. Kelsey Plum, Jackie Stiles and Odyssey Sims were the others to do it.
More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25