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Perfect Season: South Carolina Finishes with NCAA Championship, Beating Clark and Iowa 87-75


By Doug Feinberg


CLEVELAND (AP) — Kamilla Cardoso delivered once again for Dawn Staley and South Carolina.

A perfect finish. A dynasty. A team too big for Caitlin Clark and Iowa this time around.

Cardoso had 15 points and a career-high 17 rebounds, and South Carolina completed its perfect season with an 87-75 victory over Clark and the Hawkeyes in the NCAA championship game on Sunday.

With Staley directing a relentless attack from the sideline, the Gamecocks (38-0) became the 10th Division I team to go through a season without a loss. And they accomplished the feat after they lost all five starters from last season’s team that lost to Clark’s squad in the national semifinals.

“When young people lock in and have a belief, and have a trust, and their parents have that same trust, this is what can happen,” Staley said. “They made history. They etched their names in the history books.”

Clark did all she could to lead the Hawkeyes to their first championship. She scored 30 points, including a championship-record 18 in the first quarter. She rewrote the record book at Iowa (34-5), finishing as the career leading scorer in NCAA Division I history with 3,951 points.

She hopes her legacy isn’t defined by falling short in two NCAA championship games, but more by the millions of new fans she helped bring into the game and the countless young girls and boys that she inspired.

“I think the biggest thing is it’s really hard to win these things, I think I know that better than most people by now, to be so close twice really hurts,” Clark said.

As the final buzzer sounded, a stoic Clark walked off the court, through the confetti, and into the tunnel heading to the locker room.

“I personally want to thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport,” Staley said. “She’s going to lift that league (WNBA) up as well. Caitlin Clark if you’re out there you’re one of the GOATs of our game. We appreciate you.”

South Carolina has won three titles in the last eight years, including two of the past three, to lay claim to being the latest dynasty in women’s basketball. Staley became the fifth coach to win at least three national championships, joining Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt, Kim Mulkey and Tara VanDerveer.

The Gamecocks, who have won 109 of their last 112 games, became the first team since UConn in 2016 to go undefeated. South Carolina had a couple scares throughout the season, but always found a way to win.

With most of the team returning next year, Staley’s team is in a good position to keep this run going.

“This team, we’re going to be good. Coach Staley, we have the best coach, what, in the country, in the nation, in the whole wide world?” Raven Johnson said. “It’s no telling what she’s going to add to the pieces that’s already here. I just say be on the lookout.”

Tessa Johnson led South Carolina with 19 points. Cardoso, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, also blocked three shots.

“Kamilla Cardoso was not going to let us lose a game in the NCAA Tournament,” Staley said. “She played through an injury, she played like one of the top picks in the WNBA draft, and her teammates did something that no teammates have done for somebody who went to the WNBA in our program. They send her off as a national champion. So this is history for us.”

Led by the 6-foot-7 Cardoso and Ashlyn Watkins, South Carolina enjoyed a 51-29 rebounding advantage. It also finished with 30 second-chance points.

The Gamecocks also showed off their impressive depth. Tessa Johnson helped the team to a 37-0 difference in points by reserves.

South Carolina trailed 46-44 late in the second quarter before going on an 11-0 run spanning halftime to open a 55-46 advantage early in the third quarter. Clark finally ended the run with a layup.

The Hawkeyes closed to 59-55 and had a chance to get even closer, but Hannah Stuelke missed a wide-open layup on a brilliant pass from Clark.

South Carolina responded with the next eight points, including two 3-pointers. The Gamecocks, who were 4 for 20 from behind the 3-point line during last season’s Final Four loss to Iowa, went 8 for 19 from deep against the Hawkeyes in the victory.

Iowa was down 80-75 after a three-point play by Sydney Affolter with 4:12 left. But the Hawkeyes were shut out the rest of the way.

Clark checked out with 20 seconds left when Iowa coach Lisa Bluder subbed in fellow senior Molly Davis, who hadn’t played since she got hurt in the regular-season finale against Ohio State.

“I’m proud of my team, though. Finishing national runner-up two years in a row is an amazing feat,” Bluder said. “Nobody thought we were going to be here at the beginning of the year, so that makes it pretty special.”

Unlike the semifinals, when Clark struggled against UConn’s defense, she got going early against South Carolina scoring 18 points in the opening quarter to set a championship game record, surpassing the 16 that Jasmine Carson of LSU had last year against the Hawkeyes.

The Gamecocks trailed 46-44 in the final minute when Te-Hina Paopao hit a 3-pointer and Raven Johnson stole the ball from Clark near midcourt and went in for a layup. South Carolina led 49-46 at the half.


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