‘That’s not us’: No. 1 South Carolina looked unfamiliar in Final Four loss to Iowa

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The locker room of the South Carolina women’s basketball team at American Airlines Center was filled to the brim Thursday afternoon with reporters from across the nation.

Attention is far from uncommon for the nation’s No. 1 team, especially one with the Gamecocks’ star power.

Reporters from a variety of media outlets swarmed South Carolina’s athletes, with little breathing room or space to walk around, ahead of the long-awaited game between USC and Iowa in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

Less than 36 hours later, the scene couldn’t have been more different.

South Carolina’s main locker room was bare, other than a handful of Gamecocks who hadn’t departed for the team bus. The alertness from winning another game was absent, replaced with the dejection of a shocking defeat.

As uncommon as the feeling was for the South Carolina women’s basketball team to not come out as the victor, it was a mirror into how unrecognizable the Gamecocks looked in Friday’s 77-73 season-ending loss to the Hawkeyes.

The most visible player on the roster, Aliyah Boston, didn’t play most of the first half after two quick fouls. USC’s leading scorer Zia Cooke came through with 24 points, but the void of not having the SEC Player of the Year and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year on the court made an undeniable difference.

Those on USC’s bench displayed frustration throughout the game, as the physical style of defense the team typically plays was aggressively officiated all game.

“I think (Boston) wasn’t allowed just freedom of movement,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “And because of that, she was strapped.”

South Carolina boasted the third-best scoring defense entering Friday’s game. It was known for keeping the best opposing players under their averages and making life difficult for them.

Caitlin Clark entered the game as the Naismith Player of the Year, averaging 27.3 points per game. And even with South Carolina’s defensive personnel, she finished with 41.

“We beat ourselves defensively,” Cooke said. “I’m just being honest. It wasn’t really them. Caitlin, she is good. Don’t get me wrong, that girl was good. And I think it’s hard to stop her. But we could have stopped everyone else, for sure.”

Iowa also found a way to weave around the Gamecocks’ notoriously impenetrable interior defense. Beyond South Carolina’s 8.9 blocked shots per game average, it typically limited opponents to 22.4 points in the paint.

The Hawkeyes lived in that area and scored 38 on Friday.

“I think on ball screens, we did not execute. And that’s not us,” Cooke said, as she slightly raised her voice. “That’s not us. We execute.”

South Carolina’s first and only loss of the season wasn’t without obscurities.

Senior guard Brea Beal fouled out of the game for just the second time in her career, the Gamecocks attempted 20 3-pointers throughout the game and USC’s biggest lead was just one point.

“Definitely in the beginning, when you go down by a couple (points), it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s whatever, we’re just getting our groove in,’ ” Beal said. “But when it gets so late into the game, you’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something.’ Now you’re kind of in panic mode because nobody wants to lose.”

The Gamecocks turned the ball over three times in a one-minute stretch during the fourth quarter, either mishandling the ball or throwing an errant pass.

A team known for late-game execution unraveled offensively on Friday.

“If we converted, we might be standing here a little bit differently and preparing for LSU,” Staley said. “But that didn’t take place.”

It seemed for 36 games that South Carolina was the epitome of unbeatable.

Stanford had USC down by 10 points entering the fourth quarter. Ole Miss had a one-point lead with 1:24 remaining in regulation. UConn held the Gamecocks to 14 first-quarter points while leading by 11.

In those games, South Carolina simply manufactured new ways to win. And its fans expected nothing less against Iowa.

South Carolina fans quietly leave the stadium after their team loses to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game at the American Airline Center on Friday, March 31, 2023.
South Carolina fans quietly leave the stadium after their team loses to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game at the American Airline Center on Friday, March 31, 2023.

But the alleviating feeling that Gamecock supporters always felt of knowing things would work out didn’t make its way around the American Airlines Center.

Visible tension persisted. Chins rested on the hands of Gamecock fans too anxious to sit down. Others simply bowed their heads, unable to grasp the possibility of the undefeated, reigning champions suffering a postseason loss.

They had to come to grips with it, though, when the rebound from a missed Clark 3-pointer evaded the Gamecocks’ clutches and landed in Iowa’s hands.

In a rare moment and at the most inopportune time, South Carolina lost the battle on the boards.

“It was a long shot and a long rebound,” Boston said. “Those can sometimes be really hard just based on how hard it came off the backboard. That shot ricocheted off the backboard, and it was just really high. We just weren’t in the position to get it.”

Reality set in as Clark took her last two free throws of the game to give Iowa the four-point cushion it needed to win. Pain and tears scattered across the faces of the traveling Gamecock fans.

One spectator could only crack a smile in disbelief.

South Carolina’s players mostly kept their composure while answering questions after the game, but the sadness was overwhelming when first walking off the court.

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Bree Hall (23) and forward Aliyah Boston (4) comfort Zia Cooke (1) after losing to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game at the American Airline Center on Friday, March 31, 2023.
South Carolina Gamecocks guard Bree Hall (23) and forward Aliyah Boston (4) comfort Zia Cooke (1) after losing to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game at the American Airline Center on Friday, March 31, 2023.

Each player rallied behind each other walking off the court, attempting to appreciate what they were able to accomplish during the year.

“We know how to talk to each other, we know what to say to each other to continue to push each other,” Cooke said. “We fought. We tried to fight as hard as we could. We just came up short.”

For the first time all season, South Carolina wasn’t the best team on the floor, it didn’t have the game’s best player and it didn’t successfully execute a game plan to counteract the other team’s production.

The jubilation and satisfaction of winning that accompanied the Gamecocks all year long — at least for a night — belonged to Iowa.

“I don’t know, it just wasn’t destined for us to win,” Cooke said.