Caitlin Clark hits a new level in leading Iowa past LSU, into Final Four

Caitlin Clark hits a new level in leading Iowa past LSU, into Final Four

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

ALBANY, N.Y. — Caitlin Clark walked alone down a long hallway in the depths of MVP Arena on Monday night, no coaches or teammates in sight. Well, she wasn’t completely alone — a security detail and a pair of photographers followed her every move. The court opened up in front of her as she stepped through the tunnel and emerged in front of throngs of fans waiting to see college basketball’s all-time leading scorer. A hum started as people began to notice, and it turned into a flat-out roar as she stepped on the hardwood 75 minutes before the game.

Moments later, Angel Reese walked down to the LSU bench, which happened to be on the side of the court where Clark was shooting, and set a gleaming crown down on the ninth chair. A teammate would place that crown on Reese’s head after she was announced during introductions.

This was what everyone was waiting for. The rematch of last year’s national championship game. One more chance to see Clark and Reese — the two faces of college basketball — meet one more time, Final Four on the line.

That aforementioned roar would continue for more than two hours of game time as Clark crafted a performance that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Iowa, the No. 1 seed, advanced with a 94-87 victory over No. 3 seed LSU as Clark scorched defenders with 41 points and 12 assists to go with seven rebounds and two steals. It is the 13th 40-point game of her storied career, and her nine three-pointers tied an NCAA tournament single-game record.

Iowa will head to the Final Four for the third time ever and for the first time in consecutive seasons. On Friday, the Hawkeyes will face third-seeded Connecticut, which beat top-seeded Southern California, 80-73, in Portland, Ore., on Monday night.

LSU Coach Kim Mulkey held the back of Clark’s head and pulled her close during the postgame handshake line.

“I sure am glad you’re leaving,” Mulkey recalled saying. “… Girl, you something else. Never seen anything like it.”

There were plenty of contributors to Iowa’s victory and a defensive effort that locked up LSU in the game-altering third quarter, but the evening was all about Clark. She opened the game with a deep three 16 seconds in and did the same in the second half. LSU’s Hailey Van Lith guarded Clark most of the night, but it may not have mattered who had the responsibility. Clark looked for her shot the moment she crossed half court and hit basket after basket. At one point she ripped the twine over the outstretched arm of Reese, and the Tigers star simply shrugged with her palms turned up.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do about some of the threes she hit,” Van Lith said.

In the least shocking announcement of the week, Clark was named the region’s most outstanding player.

“Everybody at the beginning of the year kept saying, ‘Oh, Iowa lost so much,’ ” Coach Lisa Bluder said about her Hawkeyes, who were still the No. 2 team in the nation in preseason polls. “ ‘They lost all this offense and two starters.’ We kept focusing on what we had.”

Before anyone got settled, the Hawkeyes were up 12-4 with three baskets from Clark. The Tigers, however, would close the first quarter with a 14-3 run as Reese took over for a while. She scored eight straight, and after a steal and layup, Reese turned toward the sideline, shouted and shook her head back and forth while skipping upcourt.

The teams went into halftime tied at 45 after an exhilarating 20 minutes.

The game was decided in the third quarter when Iowa used a 15-3 run to take a 65-52 lead, and it never trailed again. Clark buried three three-pointers during that stretch. She let her emotions loose in the fourth quarter when she buried another deep three to give the Hawkeyes an 80-69 lead with 5:05 remaining; she turned to the crowd, punched her chest and shouted as Iowa fans celebrated.

“I think I just got hyped for a second, honestly,” Clark said. “I was trying to be like pretty calm and cool. When you’re playing a team like LSU, they’re never out of a game no matter what the time and score is.

“I think that was the only score I celebrated.”

LSU seemed to lose a lot of its emotional juice in the second quarter when Reese tweaked her ankle and had to leave the game. She immediately went to the sideline, spent a moment on an exercise bike and paced behind the bench before she checked back in and immediately hit a hook shot. The ankle was clearly an issue as she limped up and down the court for the rest of the night, but Reese still finished with 17 points, 20 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals. That was her 26th double-double of the season. LSU forward Aneesah Morrow finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds. Kate Martin added 21 points for Iowa.

The basketball world will get at least one more chance to see Clark in an Iowa jersey before she enters the WNBA draft, where she is all but certain to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Indiana Fever. Reese has yet to announce whether she will enter the draft but is expected to be a first-round pick if she does.

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