Caitlin Clark’s Iowa rallies past Paige Bueckers’ UConn en route to women’s title game

Caitlin Clark led Iowa back to the national championship game, scoring 21 points as the Hawkeyes rallied past Paige Bueckers and UConn 71-69 in the women’s Final Four on Friday night.

Next up for the Hawkeyes (34-4) is a rematch with unbeaten South Carolina, which lost to Iowa in last year’s national semifinals. The Hawkeyes then fell short of winning the school’s first championship, falling to LSU in the title game. Now Clark is one win away from bringing her home state its first women’s basketball title in the final game of her college career.

After a rough opening 30 minutes because of a swarming UConn defense, the NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer finally got going in the fourth quarter.

With the game tied at 51-all, Clark scored seven points in the first 2 1/2 minutes of the period to give Iowa a small cushion. UConn (33-6) got within 60-57 before the Hawkeyes scored six straight to take a 66-57 advantage.

UConn trailed 70-66 before Nika Muhl hit a 3-pointer after a steal with 39.3 seconds left to get the Huskies within one.

Iowa’s Hannah Stuelke turned it over with 10 seconds left. UConn had a chance to take the lead, but Aaliyah Edwards was called for an offensive foul while setting a screen with 4.6 seconds left.

Clark made the first of two free throws before missing the second. Teammate Sydney Affolter got the rebound and UConn tied her up, forcing a jump ball. The possession arrow kept the ball with the Hawkeyes, who sealed the win by throwing the ball in the air to run out the final seconds.

Stuelke scored 23 points to lead Iowa. Clark finished with nine rebounds and seven assists.

Bueckers and Edwards each scored 17 points for the Huskies, who were back in the Final Four after a one-year hiatus that ended their run of 14 straight seasons in the national semifinals. This might have been the best coaching job by Geno Auriemma. UConn had hopes of winning the 12th title in school history coming into the season, but those were quickly dashed by a series of injuries that sidelined nearly half of its roster.

But Bueckers, the national player of the year as a freshman in 2021 who returned to that form after missing an entire season and part of another with injuries, carred the Huskies back into title contention.

UConn got going early behind Bueckers and stellar defence by Nika Muhl and her teammates, who swarmed Clark every time she touched the ball. The Huskies led by 12 points in the second quarter.

Iowa trailed by six at the half before getting going in the third quarter behind their star. She made her first 3-pointer of the game 2 minutes into the period, and then her four-point play got Iowa within one. The Hawkeyes then took their first lead later in the period right before Kate Martin got hit in the face by Edwards, resulting in a bloody nose. She ran off the court, leaving a trail of blood behind her.

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Martin was back on the Iowa bench before they had finished cleaning the court. She then hit three big baskets down the stretch.

Clark had a tough first half, scoring six points while missing all six of her 3-point attempts. She barely got any open shots and at times looked frustrated. Iowa’s coaches kept shouting words of encouragement to their generational player.

Even though she wasn’t scoring, Clark kept the Hawkeyes in the game with six rebounds and four assists as the Hawkeyes trailed 32-26 at the break.

Cardoso leads Gamecocks to title game

All-America centre Kamilla Cardoso scored 22 points and unbeaten South Carolina avoided a second straight stumble in the women’s Final Four, surging past North Carolina State 78-59 on Friday night.

The talented and tenacious Gamecocks (37-0) led by one at halftime before putting their full arsenal on display in the third quarter. They outscored the Wolfpack 29-6 to turn what had been a tense matchup into another blowout.

South Carolina advanced to Sunday’s championship game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, where it will meet the winner of the second semifinal between Iowa and UConn — a matchup featuring stars guard Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers that has created a buzz across America.

Aziaha James scored 20 points for No. 3 seed NC State (31-7), which knocked off a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed to get to Cleveland.

The Wolfpack had no shot against the Gamecocks, who were a unanimous No. 1 most of the season in the AP Top 25 and are aiming to become the first undefeated national champion since UConn in 2016.

Women's basketball player drives to the basket between two opposing players with the basketball in her hands.
South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso, centre, drives between North Carolina State’s River Baldwin, left, and Saniya Rivers on Friday. (Morry Gash/The Associated Press)

Cardoso added 11 rebounds while playing just 23 minutes. She hurt her right leg late in the first half and returned in the third quarter, wearing a black compression sleeve on the leg. She did not play in the fourth.

Ashlyn Watkins was just as dominant inside for the Gamecocks, finishing with 20 rebounds along with eight points. Raven Johnson added 13 points.

Unlike a year ago, when South Carolina stormed into the Final Four in Dallas with an identical 36-0 record before losing to Clark and Iowa in the semis, the Gamecocks kept this season pristine.

The 6-foot-7 Cardoso made sure of it despite not moving as well as usual after the injury. South Carolina, which won by an average of 29.6 points this season, left no doubt after halftime, showing its dominance to a sellout crowd and a national TV audience.

Te-Hina Paopao and Johnson made 3-pointers as the Gamecocks quickly stretched their lead to 10, and they closed the quarter with a dizzying 17-1 run that quieted a rowdy NC State crowd.

While this unprecedented season of women’s basketball has been largely driven by Clark’s assault on the record books with her logo-distance 3-pointers and charisma inspiring fans from coast to coast, one team rose to the top.

It’s been South Carolina all along.

These Gamecocks have ruled the roost with equal amounts of depth, talent and swag.

Staley wasn’t sure what type of team she had when the season began after having to replace five starters from last year’s squad. She also worried about her young team’s carefree attitude and whether this group would mature.

But not only did the Gamecocks bond and get themselves together, they’re one win from cementing South Carolina as a dynasty.

Cardoso, who declared for the WNBA draft earlier this week, began to establish herself inside in the second quarter. The Brazilian scored South Carolina’s first 12 points before Johnson’s jumper put the Gamecocks up 30-24.

But on South Carolina’s next possession, Cardoso tweaked her right ankle on a drive and came up limping. After struggling to get back on defense, she fouled to get a whistle so Staley could get her off the floor.

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