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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

South Carolina beats Iowa to cement its place in women’s basketball history

By Kareem Copeland Washington Post

CLEVELAND – Raven Johnson skipped over to Dawn Staley, toothy smile beaming, ponytail bobbing behind her, for a moment of celebration. This was exactly what she wanted. The revenge tour was officially over.

The South Carolina point guard wanted to quit basketball a year ago, and now confetti rained down on her and her teammates. Staley, now with three NCAA women’s championships, tied for the fourth most by any coach in the sport, simply turned to the crowd and extended her arms wide.

Not only did the Gamecocks win their third national championship since 2017 with an 87-75 victory Sunday over Iowa – the team that beat them in a national semifinal last year – they ensured they will be remembered as one of the most dominant teams in history after competing a perfect 38-0 season, becoming the 10th women’s team to win a title without a loss.

“I did want to see them in the national championship this year because of what happened last year,” Johnson said. “Like I said, it was a revenge tour. And there’s no better way than to play them in the championship and beat them.”

Tears streamed down Staley’s face as she conducted an interview on the court after the final buzzer, clad in a silver designer jacket. Soon after, standing on a stage to receive the championship trophy, she leaned her head back, closed her eyes and reached toward the sky. Her team danced as music blared from overhead and a second round of confetti blotted out sightlines. “Motownphilly” by the Philadelphia R&B group Boyz II Men played while Staley, a Philadelphia native, cut the net.

“Since the first day I got to South Carolina, she’s been working so hard to get me ready and prepared for moments like this,” said Kamilla Cardoso, who was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player after finishing with 15 points and 17 rebounds Sunday. “I’m just so thankful to have her as a coach. She’s the best in the business.”

The Gamecocks seemed to be in trouble early Sunday, when Iowa scored the first 10 points of the game and Caitlin Clark looked to be en route to one of the best championship game performances ever. The all-time leading scorer in college basketball scored 18 points in the first quarter, the most in any quarter of a national championship game. Before South Carolina stabilized and responded with an 11-2 run late in the quarter, its 20-9 deficit was the largest it had faced all season.

A year ago, Johnson went viral when Clark refused to guard her on the perimeter, dismissing her with a wave as the Hawkeyes spoiled what had been another undefeated season on the way to the championship game. Now, in the waning seconds of the first half Sunday, Clark stood dribbling the clock down, waiting for a final shot. That’s when Johnson pounced. In the blink of an eye, the Atlanta native made her move and stripped the face of college basketball, going the other way for a layup to give South Carolina a 49-46 halftime lead. The Gamecocks never trailed the rest of the game.

“For Raven, I think it was psychologically helpful to be able to play Iowa and Caitlin, to just release,” Staley said. “As a player, you want to release certain things that have held you captive. And I do think the waving off in the Final Four last year held her captive, to where usually you just quietly do things and go about your business. Raven’s got the bullhorn saying this is revenge tour, this is this, this is that. Then for her to actually lock in and play Caitlin the way we needed her to play her … it’s pretty cool that she was able to just kind of check off a goal and move forward.”

Beyond Cardoso and Johnson, freshman Tessa Johnson repeatedly hit clutch shots in the biggest moments for a team-high 19 points in 25 minutes off the bench. Chloe Kitts finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Nine different Gamecocks scored, and their depth was overwhelming: They held a 37-0 advantage in bench points. Iowa also had no answer for South Carolina’s size and was outrebounded 51-29, allowing 18 offensive rebounds and 30 second-chance points.

“Finishing national runner-up two years in a row is an amazing feat,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said. “Nobody thought we were going to be here at the beginning of the year, so that makes it pretty special.”

Clark finished with 30 points in her final college game and is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft next week. But after Clark’s fast start, the South Carolina defense, with Raven Johnson relishing the assignment for much of the night, clamped down in the second half and held the Hawkeyes to just 29 points after the break.

“It’s certainly been a special year,” Clark said. “To be honest, after last year I was kind of, like, how do we top doing what we did last year? Somehow, some way, every single person in our locker room believed. To be honest, this year was probably more special than last year.

“There’s going to be tears. It is sad this is all over, and this is the last time I’m going to put on an Iowa jersey.”

Staley has led South Carolina to four consecutive Final Fours, but this particular championship seemed to elicit more emotions than previous ones. The loss to Iowa last year stung, because the group of “Freshies” that included No. 1 pick Aliyah Boston and three other WNBA draftees was unable to complete its undefeated season. Five starters departed that team, and Staley had to rely on a much younger group that was stepping into new and more significant roles. Now the Gamecocks are the first team to win a title by going undefeated since Connecticut in 2016. Boston was on the court crying and hugging Cardoso after time expired, and the program is now 109-3 the past three seasons.

“It’s heavy,” Staley said, acknowledging that last year’s loss made this game even more emotional. “You carry the burden of every single one of your players, all the coaches and staff members that put so much into our team. And it’s a heavy load to be undefeated, to finish the job.

“It means that we have quietly done things, in my opinion, the right way.”