Iowa-South Carolina is a perfect ending to historic, memorable season: 'You can't ask for anything better'

CLEVELAND — The two teams that left the 2023 Final Four with great expectations leading to heartbreaking losses are facing off with a historic national title on the line in 2024.

What could be better than that?

In a postseason littered with enticing rematches, Iowa and Caitlin Clark will face undefeated No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in the 2024 national title game on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC). It is the final game for Clark, the NCAA all-time leading scorer whose style of play spiked the already-growing sport.

“It's a monumental game for our game,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “We're very fortunate to be a part of it. We get to witness firsthand the legacy of Caitlin Clark.”

The storylines are aplenty to finish off a monumental season of increased interest and rocketing viewership numbers that should continue with more monster numbers from the title game. No matter which team wins, history will be made.

“You can't ask for anything better,” Clark said. “I think it speaks to the way women's basketball has been tremendous on all levels all throughout the year.”

The Gamecocks are playing for an undefeated season that would be the 10th in the 41-year history of the women’s tournament. They would join legacy programs UConn, Tennessee and USC as the only ones to do it.

It's the same tale as last season, which was guided by their most decorated recruiting class in history. But the senior group dubbed the “Freshies” lost in the semifinal to Iowa to end a four-year career that consisted of just nine total losses. A new group Staley equated to running a “daycare” seeks unfinished business.

“It wasn't daycare this morning,” Staley said on Saturday about 12 hours after clinching the third national title game berth of her career. “I don't know if it's just because they just woke up, but they're locked in. Like you ask them questions, they really understand what we need to do to win, which is pretty cool to see that dynamic from this team.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley congratulates Raven Johnson after a win on March 10. (John Byrum/Getty Images)
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley congratulates Raven Johnson after a win on March 10. (John Byrum/Getty Images)

It’s been a season of learning curves for the young group that put Staley into her third national title game as head coach at South Carolina. She won the previous two — the first in 2017 with two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, and again in 2022 behind Aliyah Boston, who is about to become Clark’s teammate in the WNBA if the Indiana Fever follow through with the No. 1 pick. Both are in Cleveland and spent time with Staley after the win over NC State. Boston did the sideline report for ESPN and Wilson sat courtside with her for part of the game.

Iowa is now the experienced group intent on finishing off their careers with a storybook ending few achieve. The game will be the final one in college for Clark, Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall, arguably the most decorated trio to don a Hawkeyes uniform. Iowa reached back-to-back Final Fours under their leadership after doing it only once before in 1993. But it was LSU that lifted the trophy in Dallas last year.

“I think the biggest thing is you have that little fire inside of you,” Clark said. “It's been the same throughout my entire career. I've had some tough losses, and I think those are the moments that have prepared me for right now, for this opportunity.”

It’s a legacy-defining moment for Clark, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer who many, including Staley, believe can’t be the game’s "Greatest Of All Time" until she wins a championship.

“I think that would be the cherry on top,” Clark said. “That would be the top of the list, the thing that you're most proud of. That's something you get to share with your teammates.”

There were varying levels of film review by each side of the semifinal game last year in which Clark scored 41 points and South Carolina struggled from the perimeter. Staley said she hasn’t watched the game. Clark said it wasn’t helpful to go back and watch that game, but instead they watched more recent Gamecocks games.

“This South Carolina team is completely different,” Clark said. “Some of the stuff they run is completely different. We have to guard them completely different.”

For one, she can’t shrug off Raven Johnson on the perimeter. Te-Hina Paopao is also a strong outside shooter and 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso played one of her most dominant games in the semifinal win over NC State.

Johnson has called this her revenge season and is shooting 36.8% from deep, an improvement from 24% as a redshirt freshman. She is shooting 53.8% in the tournament as a pass-first guard who is learning when to take opportunities to score, Staley said.

“Because of what happened last year in the Final Four, it kind of expedited it a little bit because she has the urge now, like she wants to break out into being an opportunistic scorer,” she said.

Iowa is still led by supernova Clark, but it has relied on the team throughout a tournament run that included a tough West Virginia defense, a title-game rematch with LSU and another instant classic against powerhouse UConn.

Iowa's Caitlin Clark reacts after a play against the Connecticut Huskies in the semifinals of the Final Four on Friday. (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa's Caitlin Clark reacts after a play against the Connecticut Huskies in the semifinals of the Final Four on Friday. (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

The biggest differentiator is their center. Hannah Stuelke, the 2023 Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, moved into the starting position for five-year star Monika Czinano, a key asset in that semifinal win last year. Stuelke faced criticism early that she couldn’t handle the load and head coach Lisa Bluder was criticized for not hitting the transfer portal for a replacement.

Stuelke found success playing her style of game running the floor with Clark and she’s been more dominant as the season went along. Bluder, the coaching staff and teammates flooded her with confidence as she took on powerful, bigger posts that included Angel Reese and Aaliyah Edwards.

“We told her a couple days ago, this is your time,” assistant Jan Jensen said after Stuelke scored a game-high 23 points against the Huskies.

Iowa and South Carolina each held open practices Saturday in front of a sold-out 17,000 fans at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland before their final closed practices of the year. The arena is sold out for Sunday, making it 37 sellouts for Iowa in 39 games. The other two were at a tournament in Florida.

Staley ended the session by dancing to “Motownphilly” and jesting with a group of players who kept up the program standard. Iowa players high-fived the band and cheerleaders at one end of the court before exiting the opposite tunnels.

Clark, who said earlier in the day a win would be for every Iowa women’s basketball player in history, waved her hands to the Iowa-heavy crowd in a thank you.

For weeks she’s played with 40 minutes left on the clock to her career. The extension waiting at the buzzer is no longer there. Win or lose, she said she feels the same way as her first title game. She doesn’t want it to end.

As for her legacy, she has always said she doesn’t want it to be about the wins or points. It’s about matchups like the national championship and what she’s done for the game of basketball.