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How Iowa beat the unbeatable team with a perfect game plan

(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

DALLAS — The Iowa Hawkeyes had to be perfect.

There was no wiggle room on the defensive game plan. No margin of error at any position. No opportunities to be taken for granted.

To beat South Carolina, the undefeated defending national champions, Iowa would have had to play an unprecedented 40 minutes.

So, that’s what they did.

When the buzzer sounded in the second Final Four game on Friday night in Dallas, the scoreboard read Iowa 77, South Carolina 73. After the basketball world watched South Carolina win 42 consecutive games, Iowa went to Dallas and beat the unbeatable team.

“Probably everybody in America picked South Carolina, deservedly so,” Caitlin Clark said. “They’ve been ranked No. 1 all year. They’ve won 42 straight basketball games. Why wouldn’t you pick them? But at the same time, the people in our locker room believed in us. That’s all you need is a belief in one another, a confidence in one another.”

It may have started with belief, but the Hawkeyes did need more. And they got it from up and down their lineup to earn a spot in Sunday’s national championship game against LSU, Iowa’s first appearance there in program history.

It’s hard to look at South Carolina and see weakness. Dawn Staley just took home Coach of the Year honors. Aliyah Boston is the Defensive Player of the Year, and if she decides to declare, Boston will almost certainly be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. Zia Cooke is an All-American, Raven Johnson was the No. 2 player in her recruiting class, and coming off the bench, the Gamecocks have players who could be starting.

To look at South Carolina is to see dominance. But when Iowa watched game film to prepare for the Final Four matchup, that’s not what they saw.

They saw vulnerabilities that they could capitalize on.

“We feel like we can beat anyone in the country, and so we didn’t need to see a whole lot of film to think that,” Kate Martin said. “But after watching that film, everybody has flaws. Nobody is perfect. They’ve won 42 games in a row, but everybody messes up, and we did a good job of exposing that.”

The Hawkeyes didn’t need to see the film to know they could beat South Carolina, but it gave them more than the confidence they already had. It gave them a blueprint.

One game in particular dominated their film sessions: a Nov. 29 contest where UCLA stuck with South Carolina before falling 73-64. The Bruins packed the paint and sagged off the South Carolina guards, daring them to shoot. In that game, the Gamecocks went 1-for-14 from beyond the arc. Against Iowa, they were 4-for-20. If there was a weakness in the impenetrable force that is South Carolina, there it was.

“Kudos to UCLA for giving us some ideas,” Martin joked.

It wasn’t an exact replica, though. More like a jumping-off point.

“We played a similar style, but we upped it a little bit more, packed the paint a little bit more, and sagged off even more,” sophomore center Addison O’Grady said.

The Hawkeyes were committed to their game plan from the jump to the final buzzer. They sagged off of Raven Johnson, who stepped up and made three 3-pointers. Even when her shot started to fall, the approach stayed the same.

“I loved our game plan,” Clark said. “We were going to live with them making 3s. I thought Johnson came through and made some tough 3s in situations where they needed it, but we never got discouraged.”

The Hawkeyes knew they could afford to give up a few 3-pointers. Because when it’s offense vs. offense, they are going to win. Iowa leads the country with 87.6 points per game, and in a shootout, that matters.

“We just knew we had better offense, which really helped us,” Martin said.

That offense, of course, starts with Clark. She finished with 41 points and eight assists, and in the fourth quarter, Clark assisted on or scored every Iowa point.

As for the defense, that starts with Gabbie Marshall.

The guard didn’t score a single point against South Carolina, but her presence was felt.

Iowa's Gabbie Marshall had the tough assignment of guarding South Carolina's Zia Cooke. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

When Georgia was set to take on Iowa in the second round, Bulldogs coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson referred to Marshall as the player with the “pretty eyes.” They may be pretty, but if Marshall is guarding you, her eyes are menacing, too.

There’s nothing quite like watching Marshall defend, Martin says. The senior set the tone for Iowa on Friday as she matched up with Cooke, South Carolina’s star guard. Cooke had 18 points in the first half, but was held to six in the second. And even when Cooke was scoring, Marshall was making a defensive impact.

In the locker room following her team’s victory, Martin marveled at Marshall’s intensity. When she makes a deflection and starts clapping her hands in excitement, the Hawkeyes feel a jolt of energy.

In practice, Marshall is the same way. So when game day comes around, Martin and company are happy she’s guarding the opposition.

“She gets in this zone, and it’s honestly kind of terrifying,” Martin said with a laugh. “She’s just got this look in her eyes, and she’s moving really hard. She really set the tone for us defensively out of the gate.

“Gabbie did not come to play around.”

But even with the perfect defensive game plan, a stopper like Marshall and a scorer like Clark, it was still a battle, particularly in the paint.

South Carolina outrebounded Iowa 49-25, and the Gamecocks had one more offensive rebound than Iowa had total. Martin recalls boxing out on multiple occasions only to have 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso grab the ball from over her head. But that was something they were ready for, and Iowa battled through. South Carolina was always going to be bigger and stronger. They were always going to have Boston, Cardoso and Victaria Saxon. Nothing Iowa did could change that.

But they could change the outcome — by buying into the plan Lisa Bluder laid out, and by playing it to near perfection.

Because, like Martin said, no one is perfect. But on Friday, Iowa was just close enough.

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