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.

SEATTLE — Basketball was invented in 1891. After 132 years, it’s difficult to be surprised. There are exceptional performances, sure. But the game rarely sneaks up on you.

That’s why Caitlin Clark is so special. She’s doing things on the court that no one has ever done. Making shots that no one has any business making. Finding seams that aren’t there until she passes through them. Taking an arena in Seattle, 1,854 miles from Carver Hawkeye Arena, and making it sound like a home game.

To watch Caitlin Clark play basketball is to see it through a different lens. It’s to be surprised, every play. To see novelty in a game that’s existed for 132 years.

Like recording a 40-point triple-double in an NCAA Tournament game. That’s new. Clark achieved the milestone with 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds as Iowa topped Louisville 97-83 in the Elite Eight on Sunday night.

And Clark put her own spin on it. Not only was she the first to accomplish the feat, but she also did it to send her team to the Final Four — Iowa’s first since 1993, when another Hawkeye legend, C. Vivian Stringer, was coaching the program.

“She is spectacular,” coach Lisa Bluder said of Clark. “I don’t know how else to describe what she does on the basketball court. A 40-point triple-double against Louisville to go to the Final Four? Are you kidding? I mean, it’s mind-boggling.”

Clark’s coach and teammates are still getting used to the show she puts on. And this is new to them, too — watching Clark snuggle up to the regional trophy, celebrating together as orange, red, pink, black and blue confetti falls, seeing “Seattle Regional Champions,” and a Hawkeye logo on the big screen.

With a Final Four hat on her head, Clark ascended the ladder. She reached up and cut a single piece of the net. Then, with a smile, Clark showed the crowd. They cheered. She yelled. Countless players before her had done the same, but after treating Climate Pledge Arena to a brand-new show, it was Clark’s turn to enjoy something for the first time.

The Final Four.

It eluded her for two seasons. Last year, the Hawkeyes didn’t get close. An upset-minded Creighton squad halted the dream before they could get past the Round of 32. But now, Clark, and McKenna Warnock (17 points), Gabbie Marshall (14) and Monika Czinano, who came back for a fifth year just for this moment, and the entire Hawkeye roster got to hold a sliver of nylon on their hands. It served as tangible proof of what they had just accomplished, advancing to the biggest stage in college basketball.

“I love to play this game,” Clark said. “I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a little girl. I’ve always wanted to take a team to the Final Four and be in these moments and have confetti fall down on me.”

It was a dream she and Lisa Bluder first discussed in the Clark family living room during a recruiting trip when Clark was in high school. She told Bluder she wanted to play in a Final Four.

“Let’s do it together,” Bluder told her.

It was also a dream that Clark wasn’t shy about sharing. First, she convinced the players in her own locker room that it was possible.

“A lot of people told me it would never happen when I came to the University of Iowa,” she said. “But (Bluder) believed in me, and that was really all that mattered. And we made our locker room believe. When you dream and work really hard, a lot of really cool things can happen.”

Once the team had bought in, Clark moved on to the public — much to Bluder’s chagrin.

“Caitlin was the one that said, ‘We’re going to the Final Four.’ And she kept saying it in the paper,” Bluder recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘Quit doing that, man.’ I learned a long time ago not to always give your goals away to people. Because there’s a lot of people that want to tear ’em down. She wasn’t afraid of that goal. She wasn’t afraid of putting it out there.”

A dream. Now a reality.

The Caitlin Clark Show is heading to Dallas. Get your tickets now. They won’t last.

The Hawkeyes faithful will be out in numbers, cheering them on. Clark will make sure of it.

As she climbed closer to the Final Four and closer to a 40-point triple-double, Clark asked the crowd to get louder. She threw her hands in the air, motioning for the volume to rise. At one point, late in the fourth quarter, Clark held her palm to her ear to say, “I can’t hear you.” The decibels increased.

“I feel kind of powerful,” Clark said with a laugh. “I don’t think people realize how much that affects us on the court. It really is huge for us when we can play into that. But there were a lot of little kids out there screaming and cheering for us, which I think is the coolest thing.”

Caitlin Clark signs autographs for fans after Iowa's Elite Eight win. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

In Greece, former Iowa great Megan Gustafson woke up to an alarm before 4 a.m. so she could watch the Hawkeyes. Sue Bird was in the stands at Climate Pledge Arena. Her alma mater, UConn, was out, but she came back to see Iowa and Louisville square off. In the crowd, countless adoring fans waved signs, most of them with messages for No. 22.

One said, “Caitlin Clark, are you serious?”

Another: “Clark buckets from the logo counter,” with a place to write in every time Clark made one of her signature 3-point shots.

A little girl with cropped, pink hair hoisted a poster board that read: “Iowa, I got Sue Bird’s signature, now I just need Caitlin Clark’s.” Bird was a record-setting point guard who won titles with UConn and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. She played 20 years in the WNBA and is regarded as one of the best to ever do it. In the eyes of a little Hawkeyes fan in Seattle, Bird and Clark are already on the same level.

And that was before Clark’s record-setting performance. Now, that little girl and others, too — little boys and grown adults included — can say they were there when Caitlin Clark dropped 41 points and recorded the first triple-double of its kind to get her team to the Final Four. At 21 years old, No. 22 is already altering the history books.

And there’s still more to be written.

“The job’s not finished,” Clark said.

She’s ready for Dallas. Are you?

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

SEATTLE — The Iowa Hawkeyes view their season in two segments: before the Maryland loss and after.

The 96-68 defeat to the Terrapins on Feb. 21 served as a not-so-gentle reminder of what can happen when the Hawkeyes don’t play the right way.

Now, the team is happy to address it, with candor and even humor. The game was a turning point and a big reason why they sat in Seattle on Thursday addressing the media ahead of their Sweet 16 matchup with Colorado on Friday night.

“I think it was honestly embarrassing what happened to us at Maryland and we all knew it,” fifth-year senior Monika Czinano said with a slight chuckle. “When you get 30-pieced on the road, it’s not fun.”

But the loss came at just the right time. With one regular-season game left, followed by the Big Ten tournament and March Madness right around the corner, the Hawkeyes needed that reminder. They went on to beat then-No. 2 Indiana and win the conference tournament. And when the NCAA Tournament began, they were finally able to put last year’s second-round loss to Creighton behind them as they advanced to the Sweet 16 with a win over Georgia.

But the Hawkeyes want more. They want to win a national championship. And to do that, they need everyone playing at a high level. Not just Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano. Everyone.

That’s what makes this Hawkeyes team different from last year’s squad. The supporting cast of players have elevated their games, going from bodies on the floor to legitimate scoring threats.

“They have all stepped up in big ways, and I think we all understand, too, that if we want to win two games here, we’re going to need everybody,” Clark said of the regional contests. “It can’t just be a couple people. It’s got to be all five players on the floor at one time.”

During the 2021-22 season, one that was cut short in the Round of 32, Clark and Czinano scored 57 percent of their team’s 84.2 points per game. This season, that number is down to 50 percent, and Iowa leads the NCAA with 87.5 points per game.

That 7 percent makes a difference.

Take the win over Georgia on Sunday as an example. Clark and Czinano had their usual stat lines, with 22 and 20 points, respectively. But McKenna Warnock also contributed 14 points, and Gabbie Marshall came up big with 15 points, all on 3-pointers to stretch the defense and open things up inside.

Iowa guard Kate Martin hugs Caitlin Clark after the Hawkeyes' win over Georgia. (Margaret Kispert/USA TODAY Sports)

“I think obviously people are going to focus on Monika and Caitlin, as they should,” Marshall said. “I think, really, it’s harder for teams to guard us when we have bigger roles and we know that. I think especially after that Maryland game at Maryland, we knew that we had to step up and we had to knock down shots.”

In other games this season, different Hawkeyes players have stepped up. Sometimes that player has been Kate Martin, who showed in a loss to UConn in November that she is capable of putting up big numbers. Other times, it’s been freshman Hannah Stuelke.

Stuelke’s season averages of 7.0 points and 4.2 rebounds per game earned her Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year honors.

The former Miss Iowa Basketball adds a new element to the Hawkeyes attack, with her ability to run the floor and create off the bounce. It’s a stark contrast to Czinano, who is a traditional post player. The dichotomy doesn’t allow defenses to get comfortable, as Iowa can change the way it runs offense depending on which big is in the game.

“Hannah having the ability to come in at the five just throws a type of offense at the defense that they’re probably not used to seeing,” Czinano said. “I’m such a traditional back-to-the-basket post. I never dribble really, if I can help it, and Hannah dribbles. She’s a dynamic player.”

Stuelke didn’t play against Georgia after turning her ankle in practice, but coach Lisa Bluder expects her to be available when the Hawkeyes play Colorado on Friday.

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