Sports Journalism Blog

By Madie Chandler | @madie_chandler

Sports Capital Journalism Program

CLEVELAND — Few dry eyes could be found among the young girls navigating the concourse of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Hawkeye black and gold following South Carolina’s 87-75 victory over Iowa in the NCAA tournament title game. The emotion on the concourse echoed the bittersweet note of the curtain call on Caitlin Clark’s transcendent Iowa career.

The win makes South Carolina coach Dawn Staley immortal – she’s the first Black head coach in Division I to complete a perfect season, and South Carolina (38-0) is just the 10th team to accomplish that feat in NCAA women’s basketball history. The Gamecocks join UConn (six times), Baylor (2011-12), Tennessee (1997-98) and Texas (1985-86) as undefeated champions since the NCAA women’s tournament began in 1982.

This one had extra grit, too. Iowa knocked out the undefeated Gamecocks in a 2023 Final Four semifinal game before losing to LSU in the title game.

Raven Johnson took the matchup with Clark personally after Clark dismissed her 3-point shooting abilities by waving her off on defense during last year’s matchup. Today, the “revenge tour” was complete and Johnson forced Clark to cough up the ball four times and held her to just seven points on 27% shooting as her primary defender.

“I was ready,” Johnson said. “I take defense very hard and I take it to heart…I was ready. I had to complete this journey. I was telling myself, ‘Last year’s not going to happen again.’”

Though Johnson’s defense was stout, Clark still led Iowa with 30 points, five assists and eight rebounds, solidifying herself as the NCAA tournament’s all-time leader in points (491), assists (152) and 3-point baskets (78). Her first quarter was nothing short of historic, breaking the NCAA tournament record, previously her own, for points in a single quarter with 18.

Clark, the leading scorer in NCAA Division I history, ended with a total of 3,951 points. Her Hawkeye career ends in a loss, but the attention she brings to women’s basketball refuses to let her slow down.

“I don’t have much time to sit around and sulk,” Clark said, who will likely hear her name called first in next week’s WNBA draft, said. “…And I don’t think that’s what I’m about either. Yeah, I’m sad we lost this game but I’m also so proud of myself. I’m so proud of my teammates. I’m so proud of this program. There’s a lot to be proud of.”

Clark’s Hawkeyes began the national championship game on a 10-0 scoring run, denying South Carolina for nearly three minutes before the Final Four Most Outstanding Player Kamilla Cardoso put the Gamecocks on the board with a layup. The Hawkeyes battled through the first half, but couldn’t overcome South Carolina’s defensive stand in the third quarter. The Gamecocks held Iowa to 29% from the field and just 11% from beyond the arc.

Cardoso’s 15 points and 17 rebounds helped her to an historic Most Outstanding Player award. Cardoso, who left Brazil at 15, became the first foreign-born woman to claim it.

“I feel like I just wanted to get out there in this tournament and just play really well for my teammates, for my coaches, and to win the championship,” Cardoso said. “So, I think that’s what I did.”

South Carolina’s bench outscored Iowa’s 37-0, largely due to Gamecock freshman Tessa Johnson. Johnson scored 19 points on 64% shooting in her 24 minutes off the bench, lifting South Carolina’s elite reserves over the Hawkeyes.

“Tessa was due for a breakout game,” Te-Hina Paopao said. “[Where] better than on a national stage? She’s trusted her process here. She’s trusted her journey.”

The impact of the NCAA’s Final Four weekend on women’s college basketball is immense, but it’s only the beginning of a movement to bring women’s sports to the forefront of the athletics world.

The TV broadcast of Iowa’s Friday night matchup with UConn in the national semifinal drew 14.2 average viewers – ESPN’s second-highest mark for a non-football broadcast. Peaking at 17 million viewers, the Hawkeyes and the Huskies were eclipsed only by the United States Men’s World Cup matchup with Portugal in 2014 (18.2 million viewers).

The record for the NCAA’s most-watched women’s game may not stand for long – the Gamecocks’ championship win over Iowa has a chance to draw more eyes than the NCAA’s men’s basketball national championship game on Monday.

“I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport,” Staley said from the championship podium. “She carried a heavy load. When she’s the number one pick in the WNBA draft, she’s going to lift that league up as well.”

Staley recognizes her program’s part in promoting women’s basketball and continued to echo her desire to see the sport grow after her team’s historic title run.

“I’m forever indebted to basketball, so I’m always going to take care of it,” Staley said. “I’m always going to make sure that our players are respectful. I’m always going to make sure that they know the history of our game…And when you do it that way, in return, you have success.”

Staley’s approach earned her an undefeated season – the first since UConn achieved perfection in 2016. In three trips to the title game, Staley has walked away with the trophy all three times. She joins an elite group of Division I women’s coaches with three or more NCAA titles. Staley is now tied with Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer. UConn’s Geno Auriemma has 11, the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee had eight and LSU’s Kim Mulkey has four.

“What does it mean to me? I just want our game to grow,” Staley said. “I don’t care if it’s us. I don’t care if it’s Caitlin. I don’t care if it’s JuJu [Watkins] or Hannah [Stuelke]. I just want our game to grow, no matter who it is.”