South Carolina Cements Dynasty With Win Over Caitlin Clark, Iowa

Caitlin Clark’s legendary Iowa career is now over. Dawn Staley’s South Carolina legacy is now legendary.

South Carolina won its second NCAA Women’s basketball title in the past three years, defeating Iowa and its powerhouse star, Clark, 87-75, in the championship game of the Women’s NCAA Tournament Sunday at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

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At 38-0, the Gamecocks, coached by Staley, are the first undefeated team to win the women’s tournament since University of Connecticut in 2016. It’s their third national championship since 2017, and they’ve been to the Women’s Final Four six times in the past nine years.

South Carolina overcame a 10-0 opening salvo by Iowa and Clark’s record 18 points in the first quarter to come roaring back to take a 49-46 lead at the end of the first half. The Gamecocks used their superior size to offset the ball handling and agility of Iowa, led by Clark, who also set an overall NCAA tournament career points record in the game.

Clark had 30 points, her average for the tournament, but only went 5-for-13 beyond the 3-point stripe in the final.

The Gamecocks avenged their loss to Iowa last year at Houston in the national semifinal, and are 74-1 over the past two seasons.

“We did a hell of a job, a hell of a job. I’m just super proud. It’s awesome. Unbelievable,” said Staley, who broke down in tears after the game.

Clark’s college career at Iowa ended with the Hawkeyes’ second consecutive defeat in the title game.

Now for Clark it’s on to the 12-team, low-budget WNBA, where it’s hoped her popularity will lift the league. Each team has a salary cap of $1.5 million to spend on players, and the max salary for each is $208,219. Compare that to the 30-team NBA, where the cap is $141 million and the average salary for the men is $4.6 million.

Clark, the top scorer in the college basketball history, has taken the women’s college game to new heights. She’s expected to be selected by the Indiana Fever with the first pick in the WNBA draft April 15. Kamilla Cardoso of South Carolina may be the second pick by the Los Angeles Sparks. She had 15 points, a career-high 17 rebounds and three blocks in her final college game.

If they remain healthy and excel as expected, Clark and Cardoso could be on hand for the July 20 WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix, the home of the WNBA Mercury. Clark brings out big crowds everywhere she goes.

“Now we’ll be seeing her in the WNBA, so we’ll be packing Footprint Center,” said Jay Parry, the chief executive of the Men’s Final Four this weekend at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Sunday’s game ended what has been a record-breaking tournament for the NCAA and its media partner, Disney’s ESPN, which had record ratings at nearly every stage.

The Iowa-LSU Elite Eight showdown averaged 12.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched women’s basketball telecast in history.

Iowa’s win over UConn in the Final Four drew 14.2 million, according to early estimates, setting a new bar, and this championship will likely break the record once again.

That’s especially welcome news to Disney this year—ESPN recently agreed to an eight-year, $920 million extension to keep its rights to broadcast a set of 40 NCAA championships (including women’s March Madness) through 2032.

“I’m a big proponent and supporter of the women’s game,” Parry said. “We’re excited to see the growth. I’m personally excited that it’s getting more support and notoriety. And this is going to continue to grow.”

The Women’s Final Four is slated for Footprint in 2026, following Amalie Arena in Tampa next year. The women don’t play in the same football stadium venues as the men, which gives their tournament the intimacy of a real basketball arena environment.

“I’m thrilled with it,” Parry said. “Our ability to host the women in the 2026 Final Four is going to be a huge opportunity for Arizona. … We embrace the Mercury. So, we’re in a really good spot with the women’s game.”

The win for South Carolina further solidifies the Gamecocks as the new money power in women’s sports. The school made its first Final Four appearance in 2015, and since then has built a program that spends, earns—and wins—more than almost all of its peers.

Much of that has been attributed to Staley, a six-time WNBA All-Star who South Carolina hired as coach in 2008. She’ll make $3.1 million in base pay this season, the second highest total among women’s coaches at public schools, plus more than $500,000 in bonuses with the team’s postseason success.

The Gamecocks spent $10.8 million on women’s basketball in fiscal 2023, more than any other public school in the country, according to Sportico’s college finance database, a decided advantage over Iowa, which was was seventh at $8.2 million. On the revenue side, the Gamecocks ranked fourth in ticket sales at $1.4 million.

It all contributed to a win and a championship run for the ages by South Carolina.

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