How Dawn Staley and South Carolina’s defense shut down Iowa’s Caitlin Clark to fuel perfect finish

CLEVELAND – South Carolina coach Dawn Staley heard talking during the final media timeout. 

The Gamecocks had an eight-point lead against Iowa in a battle of No. 1 seeds in the women’s national championship game, but Caitlin Clark had 30 points and the Hawkeyes were one Logo 3 or two away from making it interesting at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. 

“When there was a timeout called, you could hear all of the players, all of them, just talk about how we needed to have stops,” Staley said. “It wasn’t just the players that were in the game; it was the players that were sitting on the bench. ‘Hey, we can’t give up a 3. Hey, you’ve got to show.’” 

Iowa scored on Sydney Affolter’s three-point play with 4:13 remaining – but the Hawkeyes didn’t score again. No. 1 South Carolina won 87-75 and completed the perfect season. 

Caitlin Clark poured in 41 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a 77-73 upset against the Gamecocks in the Final Four last season. This time, South Carolina let the defense do the talking. 

“I mean, it’s incredibly satisfying,” Staley said. “You have a team full of players who probably felt the lead dwindle to a point where someone like Caitlin, like a five-point lead vs. Iowa is nothing.” 

MORE: Why Caitlin Clark doesn’t need title to enter GOAT debate

How South Carolina shut down Iowa and Caitlin Clark

Staley led the Gamecocks to their third national championship with some expected coaching moves – and some others that worked out. 

South Carolina had a 51-29 rebounding advantage against Iowa. Kamilla Cardoso finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds, and Chloe Kitts had 11 points and 10 rebounds. That inside advantage was expected. 

Staley put Raven Johnson on Clark in the second quarter. The Iowa superstar had 18 points with three 3-pointers in the first quarter. Johnson – who promised this season would be a “revenge tour” – took that challenge personally. 

“I studied her moves, and I was ready,” Johnson said. “I had confidence this year. I was telling myself last year’s not going to happen again.” 

Clark was 1 of 8 in the second quarter and 4 of 14 in the second half. Yes, it was 30 points, but on 10 of 28 shooting for the game. 

“We wanted her to get her points in an inefficient way,” Staley said. “Like, I look at the stat sheet, it’s beautiful. It’s like, if she scores — if she’s shooting 50 percent, we lose the basketball game.”

South Carolina also had a 37-0 scoring advantage from bench players. Tessa Johnson scored 19 points. The Gamecocks stretched their lead to 68-57 in the third quarter after Johnson and Bree Hall combined for three 3-pointers. 

Then South Carolina put the clamps on. Clark did not score in the final four minutes. The emotion overcame Staley, who was off the bench more than usual in this game. She kept after the officials. She encouraged players. Staley enjoyed this one a little more – perhaps because it came in a landmark season for the women’s game. 

“Well, it was emotional for me because of how it ended last year. I’ll leave that there,” Staley said. “I was emotional at the beginning of the game because I didn’t want what happened last year to happen this year. So I was handling things in real-time, not afterwards, I’m going to move to handling things in real-time and not having to wait until there’s an ending that shouldn’t be.” 

MORE: How Tessa Johnson, Gamecocks bench helped South Carolina beat Iowa

Dawn Staley and other three-time national champion coaches 

The ending is perfect for Staley. She won her third national championship as a coach. The only other four coaches with three or more national championships are Geno Auriemma (11), Pat Summitt (8), Kim Mulkey (4) and Tara VanDerveer (3). 

South Carolina finished undefeated, which joined an exclusive list that includes six UConn teams (1994-95, 2001-02, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2013-14, 2015-16), Texas (1985-86), Tennessee (1997-98) and Baylor (2011-12). 

Where does that put Staley in those greatest coach conversations? 

“The GOAT, you mean the Dawn Staley?” Johnson asked back. “It means a lot just to play – just to learn from her. She’s like a mom. I mean, I don’t know, I go to her about everything. I could joke around with her. I could do anything, just anything. She’s like a mom, like a home away from home. It’s a home-away-from-home feeling.” 

Cardoso – the center who kept South Carolina’s unbeaten season alive with a 3-point buzzer beater for a 74-73 victory on March 9 and dominated the Final Four – broke down in tears. 

“I feel like, especially me, I’m international, and I don’t have my family here,” Cardoso said. “She’s just like a family for me, a family away from home. And I’m just so thankful to have her as a coach.” 

MORE: LeBron James, Angel Reese headline social media tributes to Dawn Staley

The beat will go on. In a landmark season for the sport, the Gamecocks were not always the top headline, perhaps with the exception of the in-game scuffle with LSU in the SEC championship game on March 10. 

Yet Staley was ready for this Final Four. She wore a “Game On” visor on Thursday and declared, “I want to win.” Then the Gamecocks went out and did that in dominating fashion against No. 3 NC State and Iowa. 

Why does this dynasty not get more attention? Staley has an answer. 

“It means that we have quietly done things, in my opinion, the right way,” Staley said. “We find the right pieces to help us. We really do things the right way. We’re very disciplined in how we approach basketball.

“I don’t think that’s talked about enough, what we’ve been able to do, and I don’t know why. And I really don’t care why. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing the right way, whether we are the popular or unpopular successful programs in the country. We’re going to keep doing it that way.” 

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