Iowa vs. LSU showdown exceeded the hype. We dreamed, they delivered – The Athletic

By Nicole Auerbach1h ago

ALBANY, N.Y. — It’s felt like Iowa and LSU have been on a collision course for a full year now, ever since the teams clashed in the national championship and one very famous basketball player taunted another very famous basketball player at the end.

So, on Selection Sunday, when the selection committee unveiled the women’s NCAA Tournament bracket, and we saw that these two teams could meet again — this time in the Elite Eight — we all immediately circled it. Many of us filled out our brackets in hopes that our picks could help it come to fruition, despite how difficult both teams’ paths would be to get here.

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And then we got it. We got the dream matchup with a Final Four berth on the line. A heavyweight fight, a rematch, another legacy-making moment. Reporters debated whether it could break the mammoth women’s basketball TV viewership record that the last meeting in Dallas had set. Those of us here in Albany twiddled our thumbs and impatiently counted down the minutes to tipoff, hoping against all odds that a game with so much hype could actually live up to it.

And then it did.

With a 94-87 victory fueled by 41 points from Caitlin Clark, the Hawkeyes are back in the Final Four.

Iowa came out swinging, led by the first of nine Clark 3s and a breakneck pace of play. LSU had to absorb the punches and establish its post play through Angel Reese. Then the Tigers went on their run, and Iowa had to respond.

“Basketball is usually a game of momentum swings, and you’ve got to make yours ride as long as you can and hang on during theirs,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.

She saw something in Clark’s eyes as her Hawkeyes came back out after halftime, game tied 45-45, something that told her Clark would be launching shots from wherever she wanted to on the court. Bluder has seen that look. She knows that Clark’s range isn’t confined anywhere in the building. She watched Clark land another punch — a deep 3, her third of the night — to give Iowa the lead at the start of the third quarter. The Hawkeyes would never relinquish it.

Clark kept shooting, and she kept hitting. By the time the final buzzer sounded, she also had 12 assists and accounted for 67 of Iowa’s points (71 percent), tied the NCAA Tournament single-game record with nine 3-pointers, broke the NCAA Tournament record with 140 assists and became the first player with three 40-point tournament games. She ended up three rebounds shy of a triple-double in a game that everyone on both sidelines knew essentially would be won or lost by her.

She did all that in a game in which Reese played through a bum ankle, nearly posted a 20-20 double-double and gave it everything she had until she ran out of fouls to give. They did all that in a game in which Flau’jae Johnson hit big shots and dazzled defensively, nearly single-handedly keeping the Tigers in the game during the Hawkeyes’ third-quarter barrage of buckets, and Iowa captain Kate Martin scored 21 points, each and every one coming at just the right time.

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Ultimately, the Hawkeyes avenged their championship loss. They cut down both nets and doused their coach in confetti, and Clark ended her night with a piece of the net tucked into her baseball cap and a big smile on her face.

It’s too soon to know what the audience ended up being for Monday’s masterpiece of a basketball game. It also doesn’t matter all that much because the two teams met the moment, and everyone who watched that game knows they witnessed athletic excellence. If 7 million people saw it, that’s 7 million people who saw a great game. If 8 million people tuned in, that means even more people chose a good way to spend their Monday evening.

“No matter which way it went tonight, I know this was going to be a night for the ages,” Reese said.

“It was an honor to be in that moment,” added LSU guard Hailey Van Lith.

Clark understands the magnitude of something like Monday night, too. So many of her games have set so many viewership records. But when she’s on the court, she doesn’t feel those extra eyeballs.

“There could have been nobody in the gym, and both teams would have competed the exact same way,” Clark said. “You’re playing for a little more with the Final Four on the line, but to me I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s 15 million people at home watching this game right now.’”

So, she kept focusing on what she needed to do to beat LSU. Her teammates did, too. And that’s what they did, finally, a year after they couldn’t and didn’t.

That is what we are drawn to as sports fans. That is what was so compelling about this matchup — well, beyond those logo 3s and no-look passes, which we also enjoy. We love stars who shine brightest on the biggest stage, and we got that in spades and in punches exchanged.

On Monday night, we got all that and more. It’s a rarity in this life that what we actually get is so much better than what we wanted in the first place. For that, I am eternally grateful.

(Photo of Caitlin Clark: Scott Taetsch / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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Nicole Auerbach covers college football and college basketball for The Athletic. A leading voice in college sports, she also serves as a studio analyst for the Big Ten Network and a radio host for SiriusXM. Nicole was named the 2020 National Sports Writer of the Year by the National Sports Media Association, becoming the youngest national winner of the prestigious award. Before joining The Athletic, she covered college football and college basketball for USA Today. Follow Nicole on Twitter @NicoleAuerbach

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