South Carolina caps undefeated season with title

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CLEVELAND — A year after a stunning Final Four defeat that ended what could have been a perfect season and national championship run, the South Carolina Gamecocks finished the job Sunday in historic fashion.

With an 87-75 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes in the women’s NCAA tournament title game, South Carolina became the 10th team in Division I history to complete an undefeated season (38-0), joining UConn (six times), Baylor (2011-12), Tennessee (1997-98) and Texas (1985-86) as the only programs to achieve such a feat.

With its third national title in seven tournaments and second in three seasons, South Carolina tied Baylor and Stanford for the third-most championships all time and cemented its status as women’s college basketball’s latest dynasty. Coach Dawn Staley — a former two-time player of the year who played in three Final Fours but missed out on a championship herself — became the fifth head coach to win at least three national titles.

The Gamecocks got the job done by knocking off Caitlin Clark, the presumptive No. 1 pick in next week’s WNBA draft, who ends her collegiate career with the most points in Division I men’s or women’s history with 3,951.

Iowa, which beat South Carolina in the national semifinal last year before losing to the LSU Tigers in the title game, fell short once more of its program-first national championship.

South Carolina’s 2017 title-winning team had A’ja Wilson and its 2022 championship squad had Aliyah Boston, but its 2024 group was defined by its youth, depth and collective talent. The Gamecocks — who graduated 2023 No. 1 draft pick Boston and four other starters from last year — are the first team since at least 2000 to win a title after returning none of its primary starters from a team that reached the Final Four in the previous season.

South Carolina trailed early Sunday, falling behind by as many as 11 in the first quarter as Clark put up 18 points in that frame alone, the most by a player in any quarter of a championship game.

But the Gamecocks did what they do best and stormed back to hold the lead for over 20 minutes, including the entire second half. They extended their streak of winning games when having trailed by 10-plus points to 11, the longest active one in Division I.

South Carolina built their game-high 14-point lead in the fourth initially behind a barrage of 3-pointers from junior Bree Hall and freshman Tessa Johnson, a marked difference from their meeting against Iowa last year where they hit just 4 for 20 shots from the arc. They’d finish 8 for 19 from 3.

Although the Hawkeyes pulled within five with a little over four minutes to go, Iowa would get no closer. Clark finished the game with 30 points on 10 for 28 shooting (5 for 13 from 3).

Three-point shooting wasn’t a trademark of the Gamecocks’ game last year, but their depth was, and it was on display once more on Sunday: South Carolina’s bench outscored Iowa’s 37-0, the most bench scoring on any team in a Championship Game since at least 2000.

That effort was led by freshman guard Tessa Johnson with a career-high 19 points; she joins former Gamecock Destanni Henderson (2022) as the only players to set their career high in a national championship game in the last 25 seasons.

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