The Iowa Hawkeyes are competing in their first ever NCAA championship game. The reason? Caitlin Clark.
The 2023 Naismith Player of the Year delivered one of the greatest performances in NCAA Tournament history in the Final Four against defending champion and No. 1 overall seed South Carolina. She finished the night with 41 points, eight assists and six rebounds. No other college basketball player -- man or woman -- had ever registered 41 points in a semifinal game.
She was unbelievable, but Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said she Clark doesn't surprise her anymore.
"I think she's the most phenomenal basketball player in America. I just don't think there's anybody like her. In so many regards, not only scoring, but passing the ball, handling the ball. She had the ball in her hands almost all the time tonight against some pretty good defensive players," Bluder said during the postgame press conference.
"And then it's her mentality. I think that's what's so special. She believes in herself. She believes in her teammates. She's so confident, but she's put the work in to deserve to have that confidence."
Caitlin Clark's 41 points are the most in a National Semifinal Game in Men's or Women's NCAA Tournament history pic.twitter.com/uSxQxtEKbV— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) April 1, 2023
This kind of performance is not easy in any game, but especially against Dawn Staley's team. The Gamecocks entered the night with a 42-game winning streak dating back to last season. Their defense had been suffocating opponents by holding them to just 51.1 points per game, so it was going to be a tough challenge even for the top offensive team in the nation. There were eight lead changes through Friday's game, and the Gamecocks were only down by by two points with 14 second remaining.
However, Clark did what she does best. The junior guard scored or assisted on every point for Iowa in the fourth quarter -- including scoring 11 straight to end game.
"They still made it tough on me. They were all over my shorts. They created eight turnovers, a few were probably forced by myself. They're really, really tremendous," Clark said. "But at the same time, I find confidence in the fact that I feel like this team has seen just about every defense you can face. I'm never intimidated going into a game. I don't feel like these girls are ever intimidated."
FULL COURT SEND#WFinalFour x @IowaWBB pic.twitter.com/hdDhgazTVz— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) April 1, 2023
Her list of achievements seems to grow every time she steps on the court. While lifting her team to victory on Friday, she also happened to reach 1,000 points this season, making her only the 11th college basketball player -- man or woman -- to do that in a single season.
"It's really special. Obviously we get to see all the work she puts in each and every day, so when she wins this awards and is doing all this stuff, it's not surprising to any of us. We see what goes on behind the scenes," fifth-year forward Monika Czinano said.
"It's so fun to play with her honestly. Getting to watch that every single day, getting to be a part of it, you can't make it up. It's one of the coolest things I'll ever do in my life. I love it."
Clark also became the only player in NCAA Tournament history with back-to-back 40-point games. She registered the first 40-point triple double in an NCAA Tournament -- men's or women's -- during her team's win over Louisville in the Elite Eight with 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. No player had even achieved a 30-point triple-double in the Big Dance.
She still has one more year before she is eligible for the WNBA Draft, but Clark has already cemented herself as one of the top
women's college basketball players ever.
We get it 👏#WFinalFour x @IowaWBB pic.twitter.com/g2M6oX0wpc— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) April 1, 2023
"There's honestly no one more deserving than Caitlin, honestly," senior forward/guard McKenna Warnock said. "It's been so fun to grow with her these past few years, 92 games or something we've started together. She just elevates everyone around you. Even I find myself just standing in awe watching her every single day."
Reaching the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament was not surprising for Clark, as that is something she told Bluder she would help the Hawkeyes do before even officially signing with the team.
This Iowa roster reached the program's first Final Four since 1993 and the Hawkeyes' first ever championship game. They already got their names in the history books, but Clark said the job is not finished yet.
"I think we have to be able to enjoy this for a moment but also reset our minds. We didn't come this far just to play in the national championship game," Clark said. "We're here to win it. We're here to hoist the trophy."