DALLAS — All season long, it felt like South Carolina he was headed for an imminent coronation. The Gamecocks dominated the opponents with such ease that it seemed hard to imagine how they would lose.

It’s not a team with as much size, depth, physique and rebounding prowess. It is not a team with aliyah boston, the No. 1 projected player in the next WNBA draft if she declares. It’s not a team with Dawn Staley on the sidelines, the coach who has turned South Carolina into the new standard bearer.

He even addressed his Final Four matchup against Iowa and player of the year caitlin-clark On Friday night, it seemed so simple to say that South Carolina would physically wear down the high-flying Hawkeyes and the most electrifying player in college basketball.

Then the game began, and the most foolproof team in the country looked… fallible. Clark quickened her pace, entering the lane untouched, making beautiful inside passes that her teammates easily dropped into the basket. She was the unquestioned star on the court, and South Carolina seemed unable to keep up.

Even when the Gamecocks made runs to challenge Iowa, the Hawkeyes never seemed to lose control of the game. Boston played most of the time with foul trouble, and Clark took center stage, dazzling with every move, his smooth shooting bringing the Hawkeyes ever closer to the improbable.

When it was over, Iowa had defeated South Carolina 77-73, pulling off the biggest upset in the Final Four since 2017, when No. 1 UConn lost in overtime in the national semifinals to Mississippi State, snapping a 111-game winning streak. . The team that beat Mississippi State to win the first national title in program history?

South Carolina.

There will be no repeat as national champions for the Gamecocks, there will be no perfect season. Staley said Thursday that “the juice was in winning the national championship,” but his team couldn’t muster enough down the stretch to pull off the comeback win.

“I don’t think we felt the pressure to win the game, we just didn’t,” Staley said. “And it hasn’t been us all season.”

He added: “I’m pretty numb right now. I just want to make sure my players are okay. Some of them just played their last game in a Gamecock kit. I want to make sure I’m there for them. I want to make sure their hearts don’t hurt too much.”

Clark finished with 41 points for the second straight NCAA tournament game, throwing his team on its back again, growing his legend all the same. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, she is the first player in NCAA Tournament history with consecutive 40-point games.

Now he has a chance to win a national championship that the Gamecocks thought would be his. The Hawkeyes will play LSU for the championship on Sunday afternoon.

“We had nothing to lose. I have all the confidence in the world in this group, and they believe in me, and that’s all you need,” Clark said. “All we do is believe in each other and love each other to death, and that’s what a true team is. If you want an example of a team, that’s what it is.”

South Carolina hadn’t lost a game since the SEC tournament final against Kentucky in 2022, a blowout loss that set the stage for this magnificent run. Since then, the Gamecocks have become the standard bearers of women’s college basketball, the yardstick by which all others are judged.

Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal it elevated them further, starting together since their freshman seasons in 2019, leading South Carolina to three straight Final Fours and unprecedented heights. It was Cooke who kept the Gamecocks in the game in the first half after Boston left late in the first quarter in foul trouble.

Boston had zero points in the first half, an impressive stat line considering how dominant he’s been throughout his career. Cooke blamed the officiating squarely and said Boston had to change his game once he returned because he feared he would foul.

“It definitely affects you because we need Aliyah’s points to win games,” Cooke said. “She wasn’t there, and I saw her on the bench too much, and it wasn’t her fault.”

Staley said Boston didn’t have the “freedom of movement” he’s used to.

“Because of that, I was tied up, but we’ve done that to other people as well, so I guess we got a taste of our own medicine,” Staley said.

Clark, meanwhile, scored or assisted on 31 of Iowa’s 38 points in that first half, proving once again just how worthy she was of winning player of the year honors this season.

Cooke played the entire first half and scored 18 points. Somehow, South Carolina trailed by just one point at halftime.

But even when Boston came back in the second half, South Carolina couldn’t find the “juice.” kamilla cardoso there was a constant force inside, but every time the Gamecocks closed in, Clark and Iowa had an answer.

With 21 seconds remaining and South Carolina trailing 73-71, the Gamecocks had one last chance to salvage their season. Clark missed a 3-point shot, and the best rebounding team in the nation couldn’t grab the rebound, a high statistical improbability, considering what the Gamecocks have done all season. McKenna Warnock grabbed it, and South Carolina had no choice but to foul. Iowa then closed the door on the Gamecocks’ perfect season.

“That was a long shot and a long rebound,” said Boston, who finished with eight points. “Those can be really tough just based on how hard it came off the backboard and that shot bounced off the backboard. It was very high and we just weren’t in a position to make it.”

Staley pointed to three straight possessions late in the game when his team turned the ball over and said that had a direct impact on the outcome. Beal said he felt the team began to push late in the game as time was running out, especially since the Gamecocks hadn’t been in a close game since an overtime win against Ole Miss on February 19.

“When he gets that late in the game, you’re like, ‘We’ve got to do something,'” Beal said. “Now you’re in panic mode because nobody wants to lose, especially at this point in the season. We’re definitely disappointed. It’s not easy to lose your last game and expect more from your team.”

As the final seconds ticked down, Staley and his players looked stunned. Clark tossed the ball into the air as Iowa celebrated at half court. Cooke walked out of court in tears. No one on the South Carolina bench considered that this would be the way the Gamecocks’ season would end. But sometimes the perfect seasons don’t have the perfect ending.

Afterward, in the Gamecocks’ locker room, there was a sense of resigned disbelief. Nobody cried. Rather, the players respectfully responded to the questions with little emotion, perhaps finding it too difficult to process the way their season had just ended.

“I’ve been bottled up a lot of emotions, until we won,” Cooke said. “It was over faster for me than I expected. I thought I would be here for two more days, and then I would be expected to cry. I didn’t expect to cry over a loss.”

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