End of the road, ‘end of an era’: Iowa spoils South Carolina’s season in Final Four

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South Carolina’s quest for a perfect season and back-to-back national championships is over.

The Gamecocks lost to Iowa 77-73 Friday night in the NCAA Tournament Final Four at the American Airlines Center. The loss snapped a program-record 42-game winning streak.

South Carolina’s season ended with a 36-1 record. Iowa advanced to face LSU in Sunday’s national championship game.

“When that buzzer went off, it was kind of the end of an era. We had a special group,” Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston said, a nod to the team’s senior-heavy roster. USC could lose as many as seven veterans from the roster this offseason.

Fellow senior Zia Cooke played all 40 minutes and led the South Carolina scoring with 24 points.

“We didn’t make the plays that we needed to make down the stretch,” head coach Dawn Staley. “That wasn’t us all season long. ... Iowa had a terrific game plan and we didn’t get it done.”

Game recap

Iowa took control of the game early. The Hawkeyes found easy runs to the rim on pick-and-rolls, finding holes in the South Carolina defense.

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark — the Naismith National Player of the Year — finished with a game-high 41 points. Monika Czinano contributed 10 points of her own.

Boston picked up two first-quarter fouls, and remained on the bench for the rest of the first half. Kamilla Cardoso filled in well, controlling the offensive glass and scoring over smaller Iowa players.

South Carolina looked out of character to start the third quarter. The team didn’t move the ball around as much as it usually does, and Iowa quickly went up by nine points at the 7:01 mark.

The Gamecocks trimmed the lead to four points heading into the fourth. Boston briefly cut the lead to one point with a layup, but a Clark 3-pointer put the Hawkeyes back up by two.

Redshirt freshman Raven Johnson made a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 69-68 with 4:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, but Clark answered later with a driving layup.

With the Gamecocks down by two points, Clark missed a 3-pointer from the left wing with 21 seconds left in the game. But the Gamecocks couldn’t haul in the offensive rebound, and were forced to foul with the shot clock turned off.

Boston finished with eight points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes.

CAITLIN CLARK SHINES

Clark lived up to her National Player of the Year billing on Friday, lighting up the Gamecocks in Dallas.

She finished with 41 points on 15-of-31 shooting, including four late free throws to put the game out of reach.

Beyond her scoring, Clark was finding her teammates cutting to the rim. The Hawkeyes put Clark and their post players in pick-and-roll situations, and the Gamecocks didn’t have an answer for it early on. Clark finished with eight assists.

“(She was) just ready to shoot at all times,” senior guard Brea Beal said. “She was ready. She’s always on go, always able to find her teammates. That’s what kind of made the game easier for her, opening up everything. She’s just a really well-rounded player.”

Iowa finished with 38 points in the paint.

It was Clark who scored a layup to push the Iowa lead to three points late in the fourth quarter, and the Hawkeyes stayed in the lead from there.

THE STREAK IS STOPPED

South Carolina’s program-best 42-game winning streak came to an end Friday.

The team was in search of the sport’s 10th all-time undefeated season, and the first since 2016. It was seeking to be the first back-to-back champion since UConn from 2013-2016.

Still, the 36 wins were a program record.

“I just hope they’re able to understand some of the great moments that we had, and this loss doesn’t overshadow it,” Staley said. “Although we didn’t get the goal that we wanted, still, we were a very good basketball team.”

DECISIONS TO MAKE

South Carolina has five players — Boston, Cooke, Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson — who have the option of returning for another year.

Boston said after the game that her decision hasn’t been made yet, and none of the players have made their own official announcements yet.

“This decision is a big decision. I was going to have to really write down the pros and the cons of everything,” Boston said. “Whether we won or not, it would still be something that I had to consider.”

The 2020-21 season was compromised by COVID-19, and the NCAA granted athletes who participated in that season an extra year of eligibility.

Fifth-year seniors Kierra Fletcher and Victaria Saxton used the last of their eligibility this season.

USC IN NCAA TOURNAMENT, RECENT HISTORY

Listed by year and with tournament seed, finish; 2020 tournament was canceled

2023 — No. 1 seed, Final Four

2022 — No. 1 seed, national champion

2021 — No. 1 seed, Final Four

2019 — No. 4 seed, Sweet 16

2018 — No. 2 seed, Elite Eight

2017 — No. 1 seed, National champion

2016 — No. 1 seed, Sweet 16

2015 — No. 1 seed, Final Four

2014 — No. 1 seed, Sweet 16

2013 — No. 4 seed, second round

2012 — No. 5 seed, Sweet 16