Iowa wins LSU rematch behind unstoppable Clark

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ALBANY, N.Y. — In a game that lived up to the hype — a rematch of the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament championship game — only one star from a year ago could move on to the Final Four. And that is the biggest star of college basketball this season: Caitlin Clark.

For the second year in a row, Clark had a legendary Elite Eight performance, leading her No. 1 seed Iowa Hawkeyes to a 94-87 victory over defending national champion LSU, the No. 3 seed in the Albany 2 Regional.

Clark had 41 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds, breaking even more records in what has been a record-shattering senior season. She was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player.

But what matters most to Clark is getting another chance at a national championship, something Iowa was denied last season in a 102-85 loss to LSU. Clark will lead Iowa against UConn, the Portland 3 Regional winner, on Friday in the national semifinals.

Following the victory, Clark briefly sat on the court amid confetti, her teammates and their family members taking photos around her as nets were cut. “Ted Lasso” star Jason Sudeikis, wearing a hoodie that said, “Everyone watches women’s sports,” was part of the Iowa celebration, too. But for a brief period, Clark was in her own world.

“I think just having a little silence for myself was the biggest thing,” Clark said. “You’re a competitor, you work so hard for 40 minutes — just to soak it in, enjoy it, take a couple of deep breaths, because these moments go fast. My career is almost over.”

Her college career, that is: Clark is expected to be selected at No. 1 by the Indiana Fever in the April 15 WNBA draft. But she still has at least one more game to wear an Iowa jersey, the No. 22 that has become one of the most popular in basketball.

The Hawkeyes entered the Elite Eight as the No. 1 seed but were perceived by many as the underdogs — in part because the Tigers won last season’s title game rather decisively. But the Hawkeyes started Monday’s game sharp. And in a third quarter where Clark’s logo 3-pointers stole the show, Iowa built a lead that it didn’t give up. The program advanced to its second consecutive Final Four and third overall.

Last year’s final in Dallas was the most-watched game ever for women’s college basketball, drawing an audience of nearly 10 million. Coaches Kim Mulkey of LSU and Lisa Bluder of Iowa lamented that their teams met before the Final Four this season, but it made for a lot of drama. Who would move on to Cleveland? LSU’s Angel Reese, last season’s Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four? Or Clark, one of the most transformational players we’ve seen in the women’s college game?

“No matter which way it went tonight,” Reese said, “I knew this was going to be a night for the ages.”

In the end, it was Clark moving on. Reese finished with 17 points and 20 rebounds but fouled out. She could enter the upcoming WNBA draft, or might return for another season at LSU.

The Tigers outrebounded the Hawkeyes 54-36, but Iowa outshot LSU 46.5% to 38.6%.

Clark also had 41 points last year in a regional final win over Louisville. During the course of Monday’s game, she added to her record collection.

Earlier this season, she became the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division I history and the first women’s basketball player to have more than 3,000 points and 1,000 assists, and she also broke the record for most points in a season, which now stands at 1,183.

Clark’s current career total is 3,900 points, eclipsing the 3,884 of Francis Marion’s Pearl Moore, who compiled that sum from 1975 to ’79 at the small-college level in the AIAW that preceded the NCAA era.

Clark also passed Oklahoma‘s Taylor Robertson for the Division I career 3-point record; she now has 540 after tying an NCAA tournament single-game mark Monday with 9 from long range.

Clark came into Monday’s game having shot 22-of-76 (28.9%) from 3-point range in her past six games — three in the Big Ten tournament and three in the NCAA tournament. But Clark was 9-of-20 Monday from behind the arc (45%).

“Everything averages out over the course of the year,” Clark said. “I think that just speaks to the confidence I have in myself, the time I put in the gym. I know I’m ready for this moment. I thought my shot felt good in warmups. It certainly helps when you make your first 3 as a shooter, when you can see the ball go in.”

Both teams got off to strong starts offensively, with LSU shooting 60.9% in the first quarter and Iowa 55.6% as the Tigers led 31-26. Clark had 11 points in the opening quarter, and Reese 10.

LSU’s shooting cooled off a little more in the second quarter, but there were dazzling plays made by both teams as the first half finished tied 45-45.

In the third quarter, Clark started working some of her special magic. She had 12 points, all on 3-pointers. The Hawkeyes took a 69-58 lead into a pressure-packed fourth quarter.

But Iowa held off the Tigers, who finished 31-6. As the final seconds ticked away, the mostly Iowa crowd at MVP Arena roared, and Clark tossed the game ball to her younger brother, Colin, in the stands.

Next stop for the 33-4 Hawkeyes: Cleveland.

Clark has been a phenomenon during her four years at Iowa, as the Hawkeyes sold out every home game — and many on the road — this season. From her long-range 3-pointers to her pinpoint assists, Clark captured the imagination of fans nationwide. Her career also coincided with the ability of athletes to capitalize on name, image and likeness opportunities, allowing Clark to sign endorsement deals with companies such as Nike, Gatorade and State Farm.

That and her various record-breaking performances raised her profile well beyond the borders of her home state. The native of West Des Moines, Iowa, came to Iowa City saying her goal was to get the Hawkeyes back to the Final Four. The program previously had made it that far in 1993, nine years before Clark was born. She did it last year. Now she has done it again.

“This was no sort of revenge game for us,” Clark said. “I feel like if you live in the past too much, it kind of ruins the present. The biggest thing for us was, ‘Worry about Iowa. What does Iowa need to do to win this game?’ I thought we did a really good job of that.”

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