DALLAS — It began Friday with Iowa star Caitlin Clark receiving a motivational letter from one of her athletic heroes.
“No job done,” Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Hawkeye women’s basketball team told her via Twitter. “Go win the championship.”
more:Iowa women’s basketball stuns South Carolina, now with one win from a national title
Now Clark and the Hawkeyes are incredibly one step closer to doing just that.
Iowa pulled off the unimaginable Friday night at the American Airlines Center, using a passionate effort and stellar game plan to chop top-ranked South Carolina 77-73, to reach Sunday’s NCAA Championship game against Kim Mulkey-led LSU.
The letter to Clarke was prompted by Hy-Vee, who is sponsored by She and Mahomes. Also featured in the video are Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, IndyCar driver Christian Lundgaard, actor Mark Wahlberg, and former Iowa State men’s star Luca Garza.
What they said confirmed Clark’s mentality: I was thrilled to have led Iowa to the Final Four since 1993. But Clark and the Hawkeyes were here to win two more games and take the school’s first basketball championship, men’s or women’s.
Although her 3-point shooting was out of her standards (5-for-17), Clarke was impressive. She responded to the call with the eyes of the nation upon her. Clark scored 41 points, grabbed six rebounds and had eight assists. She scored 16 of Iowa’s 18 points in the crucial fourth quarter.
Monica Czinano, her longtime pick-and-roll buddy, was also great despite playing foul trouble all night. Chinano beat South Carolina star Aliyah Boston, scoring 18 clutch points. Boston lost eight points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
more:Leistikow: How Iowa player Caitlin Clark became ‘unguarded’ and reached Final Four on top of her game
Defensively, Iowa State (31-6) pitted it against the Gamecocks (36-1) before 19,288 raucous fans at the American Airlines Center, daring them to shoot the three-pointer. Although South Carolina, as usual, has the boards, a cold shooting night at long range helped Iowa make this a game all the way.
And when the horn sounded, South Carolina’s 42-game winning streak was over. And Iowa was headed to the title game.
Only one Iowa team—the 1956 men’s—has reached this point before. The Hawkeyes fell to Bill Russell’s San Francisco team in the title game.
more:How to watch, stream, and listen to Iowa State women’s basketball at the NCAA Championship game
Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes became the first Division I women’s program in the state of Iowa to reach the NCAA Tournament, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC.
South Carolina fans must have felt similarly to how Iowa fans did when Spencer Lee was not only upset, but suspended in the NCAA semifinals a couple of nights before Friday. Lee was on his way to winning the expected national title and had a 58-game winning streak. The Gamecocks have won 42 consecutive wins, most of the wins being decisive, on their way to back-to-back NCAA titles. The fall of this giant of the sport was akin to UNLV’s relegation to Duke in the men’s championship in 1991, or Kentucky to Wisconsin in 2015—a seemingly crowning second title that ended in shocking semifinal results.
more:Recap: Iowa basketball knocks out South Carolina and heads to the national title game
Clark and the Hawkeyes entered this game with confidence. They stated on Thursday that they believe they can win, and why not? They’ve already beaten a pair of second-ranked teams earlier this season (Ohio State on Jan. 23, Indiana on Feb. 26) and knocked out the Players in Final Four Louisville on the way here.
And they have the best women’s basketball player on their side.
Just as Mahomes has proven himself to be a player at the highest level in his sport, so has Clarke’s own goal.
An ardent Chiefs fan, Clark channeled her magic at the Mahomes level from the start. She scored 19 of Iowa’s 22 first-quarter points with 11 points and four assists. Two of those points came when he led the 2023 Naismith Trophy winner (Boston) for 2 points with a layup.
Clark’s 19 points, six assists in the first half gave the Hawkeyes a 38-37 halftime advantage. It was exciting and captivating for people watching across the country in what was expected to be the most watched women’s basketball game of all time.
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Iowa would go on to win this instant classic.
And now an opportunity for more history.
Only one Big Ten conference team (Purdue in 1999) has won an NCAA women’s basketball title since it was sanctioned in 1982. The Hawkeyes (31-6) derailed a repeat South Carolina attempt.
Now they will look to stand alone at the top of women’s basketball, with their clutch star leading them.
more:What the sports world says about Caitlin Clark after her 41-point performance in the Final Four
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY, and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
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