PHOENIX MERCURY

Caitlin Clark leads Iowa rally for win over UConn in women’s Final Four

Apr 5, 2024, 11:21 PM

Caitlin Clark and members of the Iowa women's basketball team celebrate their Final Four win over U...

Caitlin Clark #22, Kate Martin #20 and head coach Lisa Bluder of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate after beating the UConn Huskies in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Final Four semifinal game at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on April 05, 2024 in Cleveland, Ohio. Iowa defeated Connecticut 71-69. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Caitlin Clark eventually found a way.

Completely shut down in the first half, the most exciting player in women’s college basketball now has one game left in her storied career at Iowa. She’ll try to cap it off by bringing the Hawkeyes their first national championship.

Clark scored 21 points and made three momentum-turning 3-pointers in the second half to rally Iowa past Paige Bueckers and UConn 71-69 in the women’s Final Four on Friday night.

Next up for the Hawkeyes (34-4) is a rematch with unbeaten South Carolina, which also had a perfect record last year before losing to Iowa in the national semifinals. The Hawkeyes then fell to LSU in the title game.

“South Carolina has been the top of the top. They’re in a different league. We’re going to do everything we can to try to be right there with them,” Clark said. “But, yeah, I think the biggest thing is enjoy this tonight and we’ll go over the scout early in the morning.”

After a rough opening 30 minutes because of a swarming UConn defense, the NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer finally got going in the fourth quarter.

With the game tied at 51-all, Clark scored seven points in the first 2 1/2 minutes of the period — including one of her signature step-back 3s — to give Iowa a small cushion. UConn (33-6) got within 60-57 before the Hawkeyes scored six straight to take a 66-57 advantage.

Iowa led 70-66 before Nika Muhl hit a 3-pointer after a steal with 39.3 seconds left to get the Huskies within one.

Iowa’s Hannah Stuelke turned it over with 10 seconds left. UConn had a chance to take the lead, but Aaliyah Edwards was called for an offensive foul while setting a screen with 4.6 seconds left.

Clark made one free throw but missed the second. Teammate Sydney Affolter got the rebound after Stuelke tipped it and UConn tied her up, forcing a jump ball. The possession arrow kept the ball with the Hawkeyes, who sealed the win by throwing the ball in the air to run out the final seconds.

Stuelke scored 23 points to lead Iowa. Clark finished with nine rebounds and seven assists.

“I thought we started off the fourth quarter really good,” Clark said. “Came up with some big baskets. Hannah came up with some baskets. Kate (Martin) was tremendous. Just resilient.”

Bueckers and Edwards each scored 17 points for the Huskies, who were back in the Final Four after a one-year hiatus that ended their run of 14 straight seasons in the national semifinals.

This might have been one of the best coaching jobs by Geno Auriemma. UConn had hopes of winning the 12th title in school history coming into the season, but those were quickly dashed by a series of injuries that sidelined nearly half of its roster.

But Bueckers, the national player of the year as a freshman in 2021 who returned to that form after missing an entire season and part of another with injuries, carried the Huskies back into title contention.

“We put ourselves in position to win a game that we probably had no business being in given the circumstances we worked with,” Auriemma said. “In the moment, when you’re trying to win the game and don’t win the game, you don’t think you’re lucky to be here, you just think about we had an opportunity to win this game and we didn’t.”

UConn got going early behind Bueckers and stellar defense by Muhl and her teammates, who swarmed Clark every time she touched the ball. The Huskies led by 12 points in the second quarter.

“That’s what you’re going to see at this point. They’re gonna really sell out on me,” Clark said. “I thought my teammates stepped up did a really good job, made some big baskets when we needed it. I couldn’t be more proud of them. It takes all five of us.”

Iowa trailed by six at the half before getting going in the third quarter behind their star. She made her first 3-pointer of the game 2 minutes into the period, and then her four-point play got Iowa within one. The Hawkeyes then took their first lead later in the period right before Martin got hit in the face by Edwards, resulting in a bloody nose. She ran off the court, leaving a trail of blood behind her.

Martin was back on the Iowa bench before they had finished cleaning the court. She then hit three big baskets down the stretch and finished with 11 points.

“Couldn’t be happier with our performance tonight in the second half,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “First half was a little rough for us. We really kept believing.”

Clark had a tough first half, scoring six points while missing all six of her 3-point attempts. She barely got any open shots and at times looked frustrated. Iowa’s coaches kept shouting words of encouragement to their generational player.

Even though she wasn’t scoring, Clark kept the Hawkeyes in the game with six rebounds and four assists as the Hawkeyes trailed 32-26 at the break.

“We got some good looks. They just didn’t go in. And sometimes that’s just what happens,” Clark said. “We missed some easy bunnies around the rim. But I think the best thing about our group is we went into the locker room at halftime and it wasn’t, like, oh, come on, you’ve got to make shots. It was, no, stop turning the ball over and you’re going to be perfectly fine.”

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