Iowa star Caitlin Clark steals the show with performance for the ages against South Carolina

DALLAS -- No way the Aliyah Boston and Caitlin Clark Showdown could live up to the hype. Not after two years of anticipation and sky-high expectations.

Turns out, it was even better.

Clark met the moment and then some with a performance for the ages Friday night. Instead of shrinking under the pressure, she shined, draining 3-pointers, breaking ankles and firing pinpoint passes South Carolina could only watch whiz by. She finished with 41 points and eight assists in Iowa's 77-73 victory that snapped the defending champion's 42-game winning streak and sent the Hawkeyes to their first national title game.

"I think she’s the most phenomenal basketball player in America. I just don’t think there’s anyone like her," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "She had the ball in her hands almost all the time tonight against some pretty good defensive players."

There have been plenty of athletes who've faced similar expectations under similar stakes. But very few have delivered like Clark.

Of Iowa's 28 field goals, Clark scored or assisted on all but five. She played 38 minutes, despite picking up a second foul with 8:17 still to play in the first half. She picked up just one more the rest of the game.

And every time South Carolina made a run, Clark was there with another highlight-worthy shot.

Caitlin Clark celebrates Iowa's win against South Carolina on Friday.
Caitlin Clark celebrates Iowa's win against South Carolina on Friday.

When Laeticia Amihere converted a three-point play and followed it with a layup to give South Carolina its first lead of the game near the end of the first half, Clark responded with a 3-pointer from DFW. When Clark was whistled for traveling and Boston scored at the other end to give South Carolina a 60-59 lead a minute into the fourth quarter, Clark drained another 3.

Over the final nine minutes of the game, Clark answered every South Carolina bucket with one of her own, ensuring they could not close the gap. She scored Iowa's last 13 points.

When time finally expired, Clark heaved the ball into the air and ran around the court cupping her hand to her ear, as if to ask all those who've dissed and dismissed women's basketball what they had to say now.

"Tonight showed how fun women’s basketball is," Clark said. "Two really great teams that went at it. I'm sure so many people wish this was a series of seven games. That would be really, really fun."

It didn't even matter that the showdown with Boston never developed.

Boston and Clark have been the best players in college basketball the last two seasons -- Boston swept the player of the year honors last year, Clark did it this year -- and fans have been clamoring for a matchup between the two.

But Boston picked up her second foul with 1:38 left in the first quarter and didn't play the rest of the half, and didn't get her first points until there was 7:09 left in the third. She finished with eight points and 10 rebounds in just 25 minutes.

"Our shots just didn’t really fall," Boston said.

Instead of making for a lackluster game, however, it showcased just how much fun the women's game is.

South Carolina has been as formidable a team as there's been since the last UConn four-peat. It hadn't lost since last year's SEC tournament championship game, and few teams could even get close to them. The Gamecocks had the country's top defense, and were so dominant, so impenetrable that they seemed, dare we say it, unbeatable.

But instead of being intimidated, Iowa was energized by the challenge.

The Hawkeyes have neither the size nor the depth of South Carolina, and one of the biggest questions coming into the game was how the Hawkeyes would handle the Gamecocks inside. Just fine, thank you.

They packed the paint, banging with South Carolina and putting the Gamecocks on their heels. Time and again, Clark zipped the ball to Monika Czinano down low, who barreled her way to the basket while South Carolina's imposing defenders just stood and watched.

"If we could have allowed Czinano to have a little less opportunities, it could have flipped the other way," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "She was the one that put them over the top with her contributions, because we had everybody else in check."

Czinano had 18, and Iowa's 38 points in the paint were just eight fewer than South Carolina, a stat nobody would have predicted before the game.

"We're clearly not as tall as them, we're clearly not as athletic as them," Clark said. "But we’re a very, very skilled basketball team."

The only reason the game was even remotely close was because of Zia Cooke and South Carolina's deep bench.

Cooke played the entire game, finishing with a team-high 24 points. The bench had more than half -- 38 -- of South Carolina's points.

But the transcendent players -- Jordan, LeBron, Breanna Stewart -- find a way to win, and that's what Clark is. She's a cheat code, not only for Iowa but for a game that is poised for explosive growth.

The TV contracts for both the NCAA and the WNBA are up in the next two years, and it's performances like Clark's on Friday night that will have networks tripping over themselves to get in on the game.

"I wouldn't be surprised when these numbers come out, I think it will probably be the most-watched women's basketball game in the tournament of all time," Clark said. "So yeah, I think it's good for the game."

No, it's great for the game. And it was even better than we could have hoped for.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark steals show as Iowa stuns defending champ South Carolina