South Carolina, Iowa Both Chasing Redemption in Epic Championship Clash

Sunday’s title game between the undefeated Gamecocks and Caitlin Clark-led Hawkeyes is set up to be an instant classic.
Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is one game away from sealing redemption for last year’s championship loss.
Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is one game away from sealing redemption for last year’s championship loss. / Steph Chambers/GettyImages

Dawn Staley hasn’t watched last year’s Final Four loss against the Iowa Hawkeyes. She doesn’t want her South Carolina Gamecocks to worry about what happened a year ago—she wants them focused on what’s going to happen on Sunday. 

Just from this season’s story lines alone, the stage is set for a women’s title game that promises to go down in history. An undefeated squad that was written off as a band of misfits needing to rebuild at the start of the season against a transcendent, game-changing player looking to walk off into the sunset with her school’s first championship. 

“I think this matchup, you can't ask for anything better. I think it speaks to the way women's basketball has been tremendous on all levels all throughout the year,” Iowa’s Caitlin Clark said Saturday. “We know we have our hands full. Everybody around the country knows South Carolina has been the team all year. They've observed that. They've earned it. They've just been incredible.”

South Carolina has become known for its depth this year. The program that has always touted  stingy defenses has found a more offensive identity than recent iterations. Look no further the Gamecocks’ 78–59 Final Four win over NC State to know what Clark is talking about. 

Ashlyn Watkins had eight points, 20 rebounds and a pair of big blocks (Staley joked that the team calls her Ashlyn “Swatkins”). Raven Johnson pitched in 13 points and five assists, and Te-Hina Paopao had 10 points and six assists of her own. And then there was Kamilla Cardoso, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes played. 

“You play to your strengths,” Staley said Friday night. “Kamila’s a strength of ours.” The senior went on a 10–0 run in the second quarter. A few minutes later Cardoso went down after colliding with NC State center River Baldwin, falling hard to the floor and landing on her right knee. She limped to the locker room and stayed there through halftime, when her team was up by just one point. 

But the “beautiful Brazilian warrior,” as Paopao referred to her, picked up right where she left off, scoring another six points in the third quarter and helping the Gamecocks run away with it so she could sit the rest of the game. Cardoso looked loose and limber in South Carolina’s practice Saturday and whether she’s 100% or not, the Hawkeyes know the importance of stopping the 6’7” center. 

“This is a team that just doesn't have a lot of weaknesses. It's really hard to defend them,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said. “You know, Kamilla's been playing so well, just runs the floor beautifully, rebounds incredibly, shooting the ball well. One person can't stop her. There's no way. I don't know if two or three can stop her, to be quite honest. So I'm not going to give that up just to one person to have to try to handle that.”

South Carolina All-American center Kamilla Cardoso has 16 double-doubles in 37 games this season.
South Carolina All-American center Kamilla Cardoso has 16 double-doubles in 37 games this season. / Steph Chambers/GettyImages

Iowa will be outmatched by South Carolina’s size on Sunday, but that isn’t anything new. The same was true against the LSU Tigers in the Elite Eight, when rebounds were hard to come by for the Hawkeyes. But none of that mattered much as Clark dropped 41 points and 12 assists. 

Clark’s 21 points against UConn were nowhere near that, in large part because of the Huskies’ game plan to take as much space away from her as possible. 

“You watch her. You prep for her. You can't help but to really love how she dissects the game. You love how she executes,” Staley said of Clark. “I mean, it's simple. Her game is simple and yet powerful. How do you defend fundamental basketball with offense with fundamental defense? You can't.”

Staley said the key for the Gamecocks will be making sure Clark never gets a chance to settle in, while also not straying from their own style of play. Stuelke, who led Iowa with 23 points Friday and has been assigned some of the most talented players in the country this season, will be another important matchup for South Carolina. 

But just like it’s been about the Gamecocks being undefeated, much of the talk will be about what South Carolina will do to slow Clark. Like the millions who will be tuning in, Staley is fully aware of what's on the line for Clark and the Hawkeyes. And while Clark says she doesn’t want to be known for the number of games or points or championships she has and hasn’t won, the Gamecocks coach is of the belief that in the debate of cementing a legacy, winning a championship matters. It’s something she never did as a college player (though she made the Final Four three times with the Virginia Cavaliers). “If Caitlin wins the championship, she's pretty damn good. Yeah, she's a GOAT,” Staley said. “I mean, she's really damn good regardless. But winning the championship would seal the deal.

“I hope to the dear Lord she doesn't.”

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Kristen Nelson


Kristen Nelson is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated focused on women's sports. She also enjoys covering hockey and previously wrote for