How Caitlin Clark broke down South Carolina’s defense to lead Iowa to the title game

DALLAS — The specter of a South Carolina defense has loomed over Iowa since the two schools were drawn in the same district a year ago. With that came the tacit acknowledgment that a team finally had the tools to contain Caitlin Clarke.
This confrontation did not happen a year ago. But Clarke has faced nearly every possible defense over the past three years as she rose from freshman phenomenon to National Player of the Year. Teams squeeze their entire court, spin defenders to tire them out, throw traps at them, and often run the gamut of options to make life difficult for Clarke, and the Hawkeyes by extension.

No defense can detect them.

But Friday brought the long-awaited Final Four game against South Carolina. Clark has never dealt with a defense like the Gamecocks – a unit full of capable defenders who haven’t let any opponent reach his scoring average this season. The gap between South Carolina’s defensive rankings and the number two spot was greater than the gap between the number two and thirty-fourth.

There were so many ways to frame this epic national semi-final matchup: a Player of the Year battle against last year’s award winners, the nation’s best offense versus its best defense, an undefeated juggernaut crowning back-to-back against a gritty undefeated upstart. I’ve been to the Final Four in 30 years.

But the Final Four really came down to one question: Can a historically great defense squash the most prolific offensive force in college basketball? This possibility was theoretical, even if many believed it.

Now, it’s been debunked.

Caitlin Clark shattered that illusion in a 77-73 win, propelling No. 2 seed Iowa to its first national championship game.

Her output of 41 points, eight assists and six rebounds was not quite a match for the triple-double she scored against Louisville in the Elite Eight. Given the stage, and level of competition, it was the best example yet of Clarke rising to the occasion and upping her game to match the stakes. She is the first player in NCAA Women’s Tournament history to score consecutive games with at least 40 points. It also marked the second-highest-scoring game in Final Four history, behind Sheryl Swoopes’ 47 in 1993.

“She’s just different,” assistant coach Jan Jensen said of Clark. “Jordanians are different. Taurasis is different. The way you deal with it, she has confidence in it.”

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Unlike some teams that tried to get rid of Clark’s scoring, the Gamecocks came up with a plan to limit playmaking. They stayed home on the Iowa archers, trusting their guards and wingers to contain Clark one-on-one as best they could, and force the Hawkeyes to beat them with two bows. With Aliyah Boston and Camila Cardoso inside to defend Monica Czenano, South Carolina had to be content with their course.

The problem was that Clark defied even the most experienced planner. If the Iowa shooters were bringing three defenders to the perimeter with them, that meant the middle of the floor was open, giving Clark several options for attacking the paint.

The first tactic was to drive to the basket, knowing that the help was unlikely to come. No matter who the Gamecocks wore, Clark was able to blast through to get to the hoop. National Defensive Player of the Year, Brea Bell? She had no hope of staying ahead of Clark. Bree Hall couldn’t navigate the screens well enough. Raven Johnson stayed with Clark for 94 feet and contested every putt, and Clark still scored on it.

When South Carolina turned her greatest hits on Clark, she still found a way to shoot her. After unsuccessfully attempting to punt Boston, she learned to next and sprinted from the three-point line past the best defensive player in the country.

In the third quarter, Clark found her way to the basket blocked by 6-foot-7 Cardoso; You faked one way and entered to finish anyway.

Clark still can’t do all the scoring on her own. South Carolina stayed disciplined with McKenna Warnock, Kate Martin, and Gabbie Marshall, limiting the triple-double to 2 3-pointers per game, so Clarke returned to the bread-and-butter game: a two-man game with Monika Czinano.

The Hawkeyes ruthlessly ran the pick-and-roll, pulling the Gamecocks’ seniors off the basket. This meant that Chinano would either roll into open space if the front court defender reached screen level, or attack on the move, her size disadvantage being mitigated by her impressive footwork. Clark’s accurate passing meant Chinano was in the best possible position to finish the game, and Iowa needed every one of its 18 points without any other Hawkeyes player scoring in double digits.

“I saw a lot of really good defences. We saw some weaknesses early in the game, and that’s what we kept going for,” Clark said. “They were guarding Mon (ika) really high, and that allowed me to get to the edge. I thought we were pulling their edge guards away from the edge, where they used to be. But honestly, a lot of action on screen. Lots of bottom screens, lots of ball screens. This was something we saw on film and thought could work, and we executed it very well.”

Iowa led the majority of the game, taking a four-point lead in the final period, but a quick 5-0 spurt put the Hawkeyes in a one-point hole. It was a moment that threatened to reveal everything Iowa had worked for, the moment when the Gamecocks could reassert themselves as the favorites.

Instead, Clarke found a new level, turning South Carolina’s eventual trophy into her crowning achievement. In the last 9 minutes and 5 seconds, she was scoring or assisting on every point, starting with pulling a 3-pointer off a screen from Czinano. Then, another screenplay with her favorite dance partner was shown, which put Czinano into a relaxed pose. On the ensuing acquisition, the Gamecocks swept away the fifth-year center so there was a three-pointer backwards from the logo.

In total, 16 fourth-quarter points helped Iowa pull off one of the biggest upsets in recent memory, the latest dramatic score in a tournament full of upsets.

“It can be frustrating for other teams. You try to do your best, put your best defenders on and find a way to score,” said Kate Martin, a guard from Iowa State. “It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in the history of women’s basketball, or the history of basketball. men at this point. It’s a stud. “

No matter what the Gamecocks threw at her, Clark had an answer. They reached their positions regardless of the size of the guns. Xinano has thrived even when faced with many jobs that towered over her. It drained 3 profound indicators that lit up Hawkeye’s fan base. When her team needed points down the stretch, Clarke was the one hitting every shot.

It took three years for Clarke and her teammates to develop the confidence that their method of play could defeat anyone they competed against. Three years Clark has been the best player on the field in losses, and she laments that her team usually loses when it’s setting records. Three years of seeing hands in the face, box and singles, doubles, traps, and many other unwanted defenses so she knows exactly how to make her way through every possible obstacle.

The story of this tournament was expected to be the greatness of the Gamecocks, a team poised to be the eighth undefeated team in college basketball history. Instead, the Iowa star took center stage.

No defense has been able to solve the mystery of Caitlin Clark.

(Photo by Caitlin Clark: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

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