South Carolina and Iowa punch their tickets to the title game setting up a rematch –

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National Championship: Sunday, April 7, 3 p.m. (ET), TV: ABC.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The national championship game matchup is set for Sunday, after two very competitive semifinal games Friday Night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in front of a raucous crowd: South Carolina advanced after a 19-point victory 78-59 over NC State, and Iowa clipped UConn by two, 71-69.

Gamecocks stand on business in the second half

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The Gamecocks took care of business first, by changing a nip and tuck first half to a blowout in the second 20-minute stanza.

“I’m just proud of our team, to be able to play on this big stage and not play our best basketball in the first half and come back out and make some small adjustments and meet the moment to get us to Sunday,” head coach Dawn Staley said referencing her team’s less than stellar first twenty minutes.

South Carolina started the game off on a 5-0 run, but NC State answered right back with their own 4-0 run.

South Carolina led the first half for more than 11 minutes, while the Wolfpack was in front for less than five minutes. However, there were four lead changes and four ties. USC went into the locker room with a one-point lead (32-31), but also something more pressing to worry about.

With less than two minutes to go before intermission, senior center Kamilla Cardoso came up limping badly after a shot attempt on the offensive side of the court. She exited to the locker room, after posting an impressive 16 points and seven rebounds.

The Gamecocks came out for the second half with an attitude and their Brazilian center, ready to take over the game. According to Staley, she is ready, willing, and able for the championship game. Cardoso added six points and four rebounds to her earlier tally. Despite the apparent injury, she posted a 22 points and 11 rebounds double-double, leading all scorers.

South Carolina opened the third quarter with a 5-0 run which ballooned to11-0. The lead reached as large as 24 points in the third quarter, and a point more in the fourth. The Gamecocks also shot 60% from the field in the third period, and 50% in the 4th, also the clip for the whole game.

When the 40 minutes expired, the Gamecocks had a 19-point victory, 78-59, and put themselves back into the championship game. Their last appearance in that slot was in 2022 in Minneapolis, in which they defeated Connecticut.

Rounding out the scoring for South Carolina, two other players eclipsed double-figure scoring, while another grabbed 20 rebounds. Te-hina Poapoa contributed 10 points and Raven Johnson put up 13. Ashlyn Watkins snatched an eye-popping 20 boards for her squad along with scoring eight points.

“I think it was just doing whatever I could to help the team,” Watkins said of her rebounding prowess when asked about her goals for the contest. “That wasn’t really a goal of mine, but I just went out there and played my best basketball.”

The Wolfpack had three players with 10 or more points: Aziaha James (20), River Baldwin (12), and Zoe Brooks (10.

NC State head coach Wes Moore opened his postgame remarks praising South Carolina.

“I felt like this was the best South Carolina team they’ve had because of obviously the presence of Cardoso on the block is tough to match up with. And then they have so many players that are capable of knocking down 3-point shots.”

Hannah Stuelke Paces Iowa Over UConn

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Iowa endured a more difficult route to their second consecutive trip to the final game. The Hawkeyes had to overcome a 12-point deficit in the first half to hold off the charging Huskies.

Although Connecticut held that sizable advantage, Iowa managed to keep the game in reach at halftime by only trailing by 6 points, 32-26, at intermission. In the first ten minutes, both star players on each team, Hawkeye sharpshooter Caitlin Clark (two points, 1-4) and UConn’s Paige Bueckers 2 points, 1-5), struggled mightily.

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder provided a summary of her team’s resilience.

“Couldn’t be happier with our performance tonight in the second half. First half was a little rough for us, but you know, we really kept believing, and I’m just so proud of the character of these young women to maintain their composure through some pretty tough times in the first half. And we got it to within six at halftime and we felt good about that.”

The National Player of the Year, Clark, received tremendous assistance from sophomore forward, Hannah Stuelke, whose eight first-half points kept the Hawkeyes afloat, Bueckers had KK Arnold to help her stay in front of Iowa, with 10 points.

In the second half, Stuelke continued to contribute to her team’s cause. She added 15 more points to her total, while Clark was getting her groove back, right in time for a great finish of the important game.

“I thought Hannah Stuelke was amazing tonight,” Bluder said. “We’re thrilled to be playing in the championship game for the second year in a row.”

In a game that had two lead changes and seven ties, Iowa performed a 21-point turnaround just under the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Clark started to perform her magic and all-around skill at the closing moments of the quarter and game. Clark put up 21 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists, and Iowa needed all of them, including a crucial free throw.

The storybook season for Clark was close to ending when UConn had the ball trailing by one. As the Huskies were trying to run the play for a game-winning two or three, an offensive foul was called against the team from Storrs. This was when Clark was at her best, by making a clutch free throw and intelligently throwing the ball off a defender during an out-of-bounds play, which took precious seconds off the game clock. Iowa squeaked out the two-point victory.

As the buzzer sounded, the multitude of Iowa fans flooded the arena with cheers and delight. Caitlin and the Iowa Hawkeyes will face the undefeated Gamecocks again, but this time for all the marbles.

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