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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.

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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.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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