Can you play bigger on a more important occasion? Can you do more for your sport, your team and yourself than Clark did Friday night at American Airlines Center in Iowa’s 77-73 semifinal victory over No. 1 seed South Carolina? No, you can’t. And it wasn’t just about the hunt for championship metal and crystal. The stakes were broader than that.
You couldn’t ask for more from a game: South Carolina was the No. 3 defense and unbeaten defending champion behind the 2022 player of the year, post-occupier Aliyah Boston, and Iowa was the No. 1 offense with a newly minted Naismith Trophy winner, point guard Clark — a clash of style, substance and roles, inside-out vs. outside-in. All of which made for an uncommon amount of pressure in their NCAA semifinal. There was a sense that a wholly unprecedented number of eyes were on the contest: The Elite Eight had drawn an ESPN-record average of 2.2 million viewers.
This was sweet vindication for the years of penury and insult to the women’s game, but it also brought scrutiny and tension. There were huge ancillaries at stake, including a big new TV contract to be negotiated next year. Could the game live up to the marquee billing? That would depend on how the players held up on the big stage. Answer: It was a whale of an expectations-meeter. “Tremendous game for women’s basketball,” Clark said later.
Clark carried perhaps a larger burden than any other individual performer, and that is no slight to anyone else on the floor. She was simply and unalterably the center of all attention — she had drawn it from defenses and audience alike with her history-making 40-point triple double in the Elite Eight and her other exhibitions of sheer offensive fabulosity. She was a red flag in the face of South Carolina’s vaunted defense. “They all want a chance to guard her — and it’s going to take all of them, probably,” Gamecock Coach Dawn Staley had predicted a day earlier. Pretty much all of them tried.
All of them — and every other person in the arena, too — knew where Iowa wanted to go and was going with the ball, every time. “They were all over my shorts,” Clark said.knew where Iowa wanted to go and was going with the ball, every time. “They were all over my shorts,” Clark said.
Her task was this: thread her way through a Gamecocks team that was as deep as it was tall, as smart as it was experienced, as ambitious as it was renowned. The Gamecocks had carried the burden of being undefeated for 42 games and done it with apparent lightness. Maybe deceptively so. “It’s very hard,” Gamecocks guard Zia Cooke tried to tell people the day before the game. “A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to be at the top. It’s actually harder to be at the top than anywhere else, I believe.”
The Gamecocks had wilted so many good opponents into dishrags. Their throttling defense had allowed barely 50 points a game. They had outrebounded all comers by an average of 20. Their usual margin of victory bordered on 30. And they only got more dominant, it seemed, with the importance of the contest: In their first three tournament games, they permitted an average of just 42.6 points, somehow bettering their performance from a year ago, when they yielded the second-lowest scoring average by a men’s or women’s champion in the past 75 years. You could be pardoned for expecting that Clark and the Hawkeyes must surely go limp at some point in the fourth quarter, like everyone else.
Yet Clark cut through that defense like scissors shearing fabric. She hit the 37-point mark on a read-and-react dash to the rim and underhanded caress off the glass to give the Hawkeyes a 73-69 edge with 1:19 to go. “She was everything. … She ran the gamut of who she is as a player,” Staley said.
The Gamecocks’ combination of size, skill and relentless sweat during their unbeaten streak tended to make all other teams feel as if they suddenly had to grow — do more than usual. But as Staley observed, at this stage of the Final Four, “You’re not going to create any magic.” You have to be good enough just as you are.
Which was maybe the most important observation of all. By the final two minutes Friday night, it was plain that Clark and her Hawkeyes teammates weren’t trying to create some magic on the spot: This was just who they were. They are legitimately great. Clark is an unfollowable triple threat on every play — will she shoot the three, drive or dish to ruthlessly efficient post player Monika Czinano? — because they are a complete, superbly coached team. Their defense is a maze, their offense a bewildering swirl of screens and cuts, more screens and rescreens that their opponents had to fight through, over and under, all of it punctuated by that knife of a player, Clark.
Her 40th and 41st points came at the free throw line. There were no more breath-snatching shots left, just the soundless silk fluttering and the final ticking seconds. Her work was done: She had scored or assisted on every single one of Iowa’s 18 points in the fourth quarter.
And though the title game against LSU still remained, it had to be hazarded that the most memorable and broadly important contest of this championship tournament had already been played.
When the clock hit zero, for a moment it seemed that Clark was going to tear off her jersey with exuberance. She struck an “Are you not entertained?” pose with both arms in the air. Then she lay down on top of that NCAA Final Four logo. She had every right to it. After all, she practically owns the thing.