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For Caitlin Clark and Iowa fans, this moment is too special to miss

Caitlin Clark acknowledges the crowd after Iowa's upset win over South Carolina in the Final Four. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

DALLAS — Emma and Abigail Lehl had never been to an Iowa basketball game. They’d also never been on a road trip.

The girls, ages 8 and 6, knocked both out with one epic adventure, as their mom Haley piled them into a car and made the 12 hour, 34 minute drive from Cedar Falls, Iowa to Dallas for the Final Four.

After a season of watching the Hawkeyes on TV, the family decided this moment was too good to pass up.

“This could only happen once,” Haley said. “You never know.”

She’s right. The Final Four has eluded the Iowa women’s basketball team since 1993, so Lehl wasn’t going to risk her daughters missing out.

And she’s not the only one.

As Iowa defeated South Carolina on Friday for a spot in Sunday’s national championship game against LSU, the crowd at American Airlines Center had a noticeable contingent of Hawkeyes fans. In addition to their designated section, the stands were peppered with yellow shirts, hats, jerseys, and even a few pairs of striped overalls.

“That was super cool,” Iowa guard Kate Martin said. “We are like 16 hours away from home and we still had that many fans show up for us. It just really shows that we have the best fans in the country, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more Hawk fans showed up for Sunday.”

With seconds remaining on the clock in Friday’s semifinal game, it became clear that Iowa was going to pull off the upset of undefeated South Carolina. That’s when Abigail Lehl, who accessorized her Iowa gear with sparkly pink crocs, adorned with the letters “I O W A”, realized her team was going to win.

“That was my favorite part,” she said. “When Caitlin Clark threw the ball up and came to celebrate with the crowd.”

Clark dazzled the arena with a 41-point performance that included eight assists and six rebounds. The game between the Player of the Year and the undefeated defending champions generated a lot of buzz and had the turnout to match. It was a sold-out crowd, and tickets were hard to come by. The game also drew 5.5 million viewers on ESPN platforms, making it the most-viewed NCAA Women’s Tournament semifinal game on record.

Josh and Meg Rife started talking to their kids about going to the Final Four back at the start of the season. Then, Josh says, it was a joke. But as Iowa continued to win games and the Rifes continued to follow their run, it became clear that the joke was becoming a reality.

“After they won on Sunday (against Lousiville in the Elite Eight), I looked at the tickets and I was like, ‘These seem kind of expensive,’ but we promised the kids so we are going to do it,” Josh Rife said. “Then I woke up the next day and those tickets that I thought were expensive were all gone. I looked at what was left and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t perceive these getting any cheaper, so let’s just pull the trigger.”

In total, they spent $3,400 on tickets for the Final Four and the national title game.

The Rife kids, 10-year-old Holden and 8-year-old Cecilia, are fans of all Hawkeye sports, but this team has made a special kind of impact on them. Cecilia’s favorite player is Gabbie Marshall, while Holden marvels at the playmaking of Clark.

“He never differentiates between the men’s and women’s teams,” Josh said of Holden. “He loves the Hawks. And I don’t think there is a player he finds more engrossing and more fun to watch than Caitlin Clark.”

Rife grew up in Iowa and watched the 1993 team until, as he says “Ohio State and Katie Smith tore us up in the semifinal game.” Smith, who was a freshman at the time, went on to have a successful career in the WNBA and now serves as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Lynx.

Despite the loss, Rife remembers the run well, and he wants that for his kids.

“This is going to be a core memory for them,” he said. “They were so engrossed in the game, you know, sitting forward on the chairs, and it was just really special for them to be in the same arena with a team that we have followed closely.”

It made the drive and the money spent well worth it, something that Ralna McVinua understands well. Her family lives in Storm Lake, Iowa, which is a three-hour and 40-minute drive from Carver Hawkeye Arena. Despite the distance, the McVinuas are season ticket holders, and she took her two daughters to seven Iowa home games this season before deciding to attend the Final Four.

McVinua is a life-long Iowa resident. She was 17 the last time the Hawkeyes were in the Final Four, but she couldn’t see the games on TV. Instead, McVinua read what she could about the team in her hometown newspaper.

Now, the Hawkeyes get all kinds of coverage, a shift McVinua credits to the team’s star player.

“Taking my daughters to see this is amazing,” she said. “And we feel that Caitlin Clark has really grown the game. A lot of people are tuning in just to see her. We feel really fortunate that she is from Iowa and that she stayed in Iowa.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.