DALLAS — No team had been able to overcome South Carolina‘s dominance for 42 consecutive games. Until Friday night. Led by Caitlin Clark‘s second consecutive 41-point game — one of the greatest individual performances in Final Four history — Iowa pulled one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history, ending the Gamecocks’ undefeated season 77-73.
The Hawkeyes, who advance to their first NCAA championship game in school history, will be joined by another first-timer in Sunday’s title game. LSU trailed by nine points entering Friday’s fourth quarter but rallied to beat Virginia Tech 79-72 in the other semifinal.
Clark’s 41 points and eight assists — she scored or assisted on 58 of Iowa’s 77 points — paced the Hawkeyes, who only trailed for a little over 2 minutes Friday. Iowa controlled the game from the outset and never wilted; South Carolina’s largest lead was one point.
The Gamecocks’ quest to win back-to-back titles and become the 10th team to run the table ended in the semifinals, along with a 42-game win streak that dated to March 6, 2022. And instead of the Gamecocks, the SEC will be represented in Sunday’s final by the Tigers, who lost in the semifinals for five straight years (2004-08). Coach Kim Mulkey is looking for her fourth NCAA title after winning three with Baylor.
ESPN’s Andrea Adelson, Charlie Creme and M.A. Voepel break down how Iowa shocked the world and how LSU pulled off an improbable comeback. They also take an early look at the Iowa-LSU matchup Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
South Carolina falls short in semifinal battle vs. Iowa
Despite Zia Cooke’s 24 points, the Gamecocks struggle in stopping the Hawkeyes’ Caitlin Clark, dropping the 77-73 decision and ending their 42-game winning streak.
What did Iowa do, and what went wrong for South Carolina, to put the Hawkeyes in the final and end the Gamecocks’ undefeated season?
Creme: Every team collapses under the weight of the physical dominance of the Gamecocks. Not Iowa. The upset is one thing. The Hawkeyes trailed only briefly on a couple occasions, held off every South Carolina attempt at a rally and won despite being outrebounded 49-25. Iowa had a game plan that played to its own strengths and had the best player on the court. The Hawkeyes pushed the pace whenever they could, spread the floor in their half-court offense and put the ball in Clark’s electrifying hands as much as possible. Clark seemed to have an answer each time South Carolina was on the verge of making that one big push. Most notably, when Aliyah Boston made a layup with 9:05 left to give South Carolina a 60-59 lead, Clark responded with a 3-pointer 13 seconds later, and then assisted on a Monika Czinano layup, to restore a four-point Iowa lead. South Carolina didn’t lead again.
As good as Iowa was, this wasn’t South Carolina’s best performance. The general thought was that if the Gamecocks played their A-game they would capture a second straight championship. This was not their A-game. Iowa packed the paint and dared South Carolina to shoot jumpers. That has been the Gamecocks’ Achilles’ heel for three years. Making just 4-of-20 3-pointers cost South Carolina; the Gamecocks’ 24-8 advantage in second-chance points wasn’t enough to overcome a 39.0% shooting night.
Adelson: Charlie points out something South Carolina guard Zia Cooke said after the game in the locker room. When asked what Iowa did to take the Gamecocks off their game, she said, “We beat ourselves.” Particularly on the defensive end, where South Carolina has been the most dominant team in the country this year. “We didn’t execute,” Cooke said. “On the guard screens we didn’t execute. That’s not us. We let open layups happen too many times. It’s just not us. I guess it wasn’t destined for us to win.”
Perhaps the most frustrating part is Iowa took it to South Carolina inside — scoring 38 points in the paint. The Hawkeyes’ 77 points is tied for the highest total the Gamecocks allowed all season. Iowa also made sure that Boston was off her game — and getting into early foul trouble certainly didn’t help. When South Carolina does not get the most out of its post players, as Charlie mentioned, and is simply not up to the usual standard it has set on defense, it is going to be a long night.
LSU was minus-11 on the boards at halftime and trailed by as many as 12 points in the third quarter. How did the Tigers turn around the game?
LSU uses dominant 4th quarter to advance to title game
LSU’s huge fourth quarter pushes the Tigers past Virginia Tech and into the national championship game.
Creme: This was the same formula the Tigers used to reach the Final Four; it just took a while to find the right ingredients. Despite the rebounding deficit, LSU held a 24-10 advantage in points in the paint over the first 20 minutes. The Tigers were winning the battle around the rim. That translated into winning the game in the second half. The Tigers finished with 50 points in the paint (Angel Reese had 22 all by herself) to Virginia Tech’s 14. LSU only made three 3-pointers, but the Hokies were no match for the Tigers inside. Reese epitomized the turnaround. She had a solid first half (10 points and two rebounds) but finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds for her SEC-record 33rd double-double this season. Down the stretch she dominated the matchup with Elizabeth Kitley, who only took one shot in the fourth quarter.
Adelson: The job LSU did on Kitley meant there was more pressure on Virginia Tech’s shooters, and they weren’t able to come through. Georgia Amoore, always reliable from 3-point range, was settling for 3-point shots in the fourth quarter — sometimes even rushing them with plenty of time left to set the offense and look for other options. Amoore took the first four shots to start the fourth quarter — all while the Hokies had the lead. But she only hit one of them as the lead started to slip away. It’s hard to have to rely on 3-point attempts when LSU is doing so much in the paint. As a team, Virginia Tech had zero attempts inside the paint in the entire fourth quarter.
Reese, Morris on Final Four win: ‘We just made history’
Following a comeback win over 1-seed Virginia Tech, 2-seed LSU’s Angel Reese and Alexis Morris explain how they’ve overcome all odds.
Voepel: LSU’s Alexis Morris was a little “brisk” Thursday with a reporter who asked how the Tigers would go about stopping Virginia Tech sharpshooter Georgia Amoore, basically saying, “Hey, I’m a good player, too.”
Morris’ story is one for the ages. She began her college career at Baylor, was dismissed from the team by then-coach Kim Mulkey, then went to Rutgers and Texas A&M before going to LSU after Mulkey took over. Morris asked Mulkey to give her a second chance, and it has paid amazing dividends for both.
In the Elite Eight, Morris hit key jump shots and free throws. Friday against Virginia Tech, she did it again, scoring a team-high 27 points. And while it took 27 shots to do it, Morris played her heart out for all 40 minutes. Amoore finished with 17 points, but was 4-of-17 from the field.
LSU struggled with Virginia Tech’s zone defense in the first half, shooting 0-of-6 from the floor against it. But things changed dramatically in the second half, as LSU shot 12-of-26 vs. the zone.
Where does Iowa’s victory over South Carolina rank in the history of NCAA tournament and Final Four upsets?
What makes Caitlin Clark special?
Doris Burke and Diana Taurasi analyze Caitlin Clark’s greatness during her performance against South Carolina.
Voepel: It’s fascinating that we’ve seen two upsets that ended perfect seasons in the national semifinals right here in Dallas’ American Airlines Center, six years apart. In 2017, Mississippi State ended UConn‘s NCAA-record 111-game winning streak on Morgan William’s jump shot at the buzzer in overtime. And it felt even bigger because the Bulldogs had lost to UConn by 60 points the year before.
This Iowa win over South Carolina was an upset, no doubt, as most observers thought the Gamecocks’ depth and size was too much for Iowa to overcome. But because the Hawkeyes have the nation’s best offense and the best offensive player, it wasn’t as if this result was inconceivable.
Arizona‘s win over UConn in 2021’s tournament in the San Antonio bubble was a pretty huge upset, too. UConn’s Paige Bueckers was having a spectacular freshman season, and the Huskies had just one loss to Arizona’s five.
If you look beyond the Final Four, there are bigger upsets in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in tournament history. Sticking to just the Final Four, this Iowa upset was huge, but not quite the biggest.
Creme: I’m also on board that the Mississippi State win over UConn was a bigger upset. Like Iowa, that Mississippi State team was a No. 2 seed, but the Bulldogs didn’t have a player like Clark or an offense like the Hawkeyes.
But if we are expanding this conversation to the entire tournament, nothing tops Louisville‘s Sweet 16 shocker over Baylor in 2013. That Bears team wasn’t undefeated (they had lost to Stanford earlier in the season), but with Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims, the Bears were just as imposing and talented as this South Carolina team. And the 2013 Cardinals were not nearly the equivalent of the 2023 Hawkeyes.
We’ll analyze the Iowa-LSU title game more on Saturday. Give us one hot take before then.
Creme: The Iowa scouting report for LSU shouldn’t be too different from the one the Hawkeyes had for South Carolina. The Tigers are also a talented offensive rebounding team, second in the country behind the Gamecocks, in fact. They have a star interior player in Angel Reese. They also can struggle from the perimeter like South Carolina. The strategy of packing the paint can work for Iowa again, and if LSU doesn’t have a better answer for Clark than South Carolina did, Iowa is going to be celebrating its first national championship.
Voepel: Play in the paint will be huge in this matchup. LSU ruled the paint scoring-wise against Virginia Tech, and the Hawkeyes — even though they just beat a South Carolina team known for its inside play — will have their hands full again vs. the Tigers.
How Iowa ended South Carolina’s undefeated season and LSU toppled Virginia Tech