April 1, 2023
How Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano led Iowa to win over South Carolina
Clark’s 41 points propelled the Hawkeyes to a program-first NCAA Tournament championship game
DALLAS — With less than three seconds left in Iowa’s first Final Four game in three decades, Hawkeyes junior and 2023 Naismith Player of the Year Caitlin Clark caught the inbounds pass and dribbled across the court, positioning herself to throw the game ball to Iowa fans in the crowd. The buzzer sounded and the scoreboard read Iowa 77, South Carolina 73. In the final hours of March, Clark and fifth-year big Monika Czinano pulled off an upset few saw coming.
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Tabbed as 11.5-point underdogs heading into their matchup with reigning champion and previously undefeated South Carolina, Iowa jumped out to an early lead, putting fans and the country on notice.
“I’m so proud of my women because I think they’re the only people that really believed,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said in her opening statement. “I don’t think anybody else, unless you were in black and gold, believed that we were going to win that game. So the women in that circle, they believed, and we prepared all week as if we were going to win this game.”
While Clark knows South Carolina was heavily favored, the team believes in one another and that was all they needed. “We just do it for the person to our left and our right,” Clark said. “We might not be — we’re clearly not as tall as them. We’re clearly not as athletic as them. But I think we’re a very, very skilled basketball team that loves one another, and that’s going to get you really, really far.”
Clark became the first player to score 40-plus points in consecutive women’s NCAA Tournament games, finishing the game with 41 points, six rebounds, eight assists and one steal, but she made sure her teammates’ contributions were not forgotten storylines.
“I was given the ball in kind of the biggest moments of the game on the biggest stage, but also at the same time, my teammates really came through and played huge minutes,” Clark said. “I thought [Addison O’Grady] and Hannah Stuelke were tremendous off the bench. … I might score the most points, but at the end of the day, [we] aren’t anywhere without my teammates. … Everybody did their role. That’s what our team is about. Knowing your role, doing your role and showing up in that every single day.”
Czinano told reporters that the crown Clark wears is heavy sometimes but that the team tries to help alleviate pressure in any way that it can. “I think the biggest thing we can do for each other is just — we’re a bunch of college kids just having fun with each other, keeping things light, keeping things loose,” she said.
Czinano was the only other Hawkeye to score in double figures and had 18 points (6-for-8 shooting from the floor), three rebounds and three steals. South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley called Czinano the difference-maker.
“I think that’s a tremendous compliment coming from Coach Staley,” Czinano said. “All the credit goes to my teammates. They find me in positions that I am the most effective, and they do it game in and game out all the time. The confidence they have in me is quite unreal truly.”
Clark later said, “She made some tough baskets tonight. She had a finish there at the end of the third quarter that was about as good a finish as I’ve ever seen by a post player. She had 6’7 [Kamilla Cardoso] guarding her and makes a huge basket that gives us another two points. It comes down to it at the end. We needed that.”
Heading into the game, limiting offensive rebounds for the Gamecocks was going to be key; the team grabbed 25 rebounds against Maryland in an Elite Eight win. South Carolina grabbed 26 offensive rebounds against Iowa, but with 18 seconds left and the Hawkeyes up 73-71, McKenna Warnock grabbed her only offensive rebound of the game to extend the possession. After two fouls, South Carolina had one to give, and then Clark was at the free throw line. She made both free throws to put the Hawkeyes up four with 13.5 seconds to go.
After grabbing the offensive rebound the only thing going through Warnock’s head was, “Just get it to Caitlin.” She added, “We always want to get those o-boards, and I’m glad I could come up with that one. It kind of fell in my lap. That’s what we wanted in those moments, we wanted some of those to bounce our way. I’m glad it did in that moment, and I’m glad Caitlin knocked those free throws down.”
Clark believes that people tune in to watch her entire team, not just because of her exciting style of play, but also because they play the “right style of basketball.” She added, “We’re a skilled team. We shoot the ball well. But I think it’s the joy and the love we have for one another. We smile. We support each other. We high-five. It’s incredible and it’s special.”
The selflessness Clark displayed throughout the press conference didn’t surprise Czinano and Warnock. They both acknowledged the work that Clark puts in and how special it is to see the hard work pay off on the court, and both feel grateful to witness her success behind the scenes and on the court. “Even I find myself just standing in awe watching her every single day,” Warnock said.
Bluder isn’t surprised anymore by Clark’s performances but was worried about her getting tired. Between shooting, ball-handling and passing, Clark had the ball in her hands most of the game against one of the best defenses in the country. Bluder noted that Clark’s belief in herself — backed up by her hard work off the court — and belief in her teammates is what makes her special. “She said when we were recruiting her, I want to get to a Final Four, and it takes one person to believe it.”