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South Carolina dared Caitlin Clark to beat them – and she did

South Carolina dared Caitlin Clark to beat them – and she did

Friday night's Final Four matchup between Iowa and South Carolina lived up to the hype. Honestly, I'd argue that it surpassed it.

There were storylines aplenty in this one. Chief among them: what exactly would Iowa star Caitlin Clark look like against South Carolina's elite defense?

Not many teams in basketball, period, are able to turn the water off for opponents the way the Gamecocks can. They're stacked with length and mobility on the perimeter, headlined by the work of Brea Beal. There's no shortage of size and ground coverage in the frontcourt, headlined by Naismith Women's Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

Clark would have her work cut out for her. But the same was true for the Gamecocks.

There are players who can dictate games with their playmaking, players who can do that with shooting, players who can do that off the bounce, and players who can do all of those things.

Then there's Clark, who can do all of those things to such a ridiculous level that she can render virtually any scheme irrelevant.

With players like Clark – and historic players before her – you have to choose a poison. Take one thing off the table and, if they beat you in another way, you tip your cap. 

For the Gamecocks, it was clear early on that they were going to make Clark topple them. There wouldn't be aggressive doubles, nor would there be much help on the back end.

To the latter point, it's worth noting that Iowa ranked seventh in the country in three-point percentage. Aside from Clark (38.7% from three on 9.2 attempts), McKenna Warnock (38.8% on 4.4 attempts), Gabbie Marshall (37.3% on 4.3 attempts) and Kate Martin (40.2% on 2.9 attempts) have all proven themselves to be knockdown shooters.

The Gamecocks didn't want to get burned from deep, especially in light of their own shooting limitations. If threes were going to be taken, they would come off the bounce in isolation. And in ball screens, they would keep things a 2-on-2 affair to prevent Clark from dishing out for catch-and-shoot opportunities. 

In theory, the poison they chose made sense. In practice, it put a spotlight on everything that makes Clark special. 

If there's a particular area of Clark's game that popped in this one, it was the driving. It's easy to get lost in her pull-up and movement shooting – and buddy did she knock down some shots in this one. But her ability to beat single coverage off the bounce, against this stable of perimeter defenders, was pretty darn impressive. 

Take Iowa's first bucket, for example:

It's worth noting the spacing, as it proved to be an important battleground. To Clark's left, Iowa was setting up a stagger for Martin to occupy help defenders. To her right, Marshall was the lone shooter, practically being face-guarded. That left Kierra Fletcher on an island against Clark, who was able to gain leverage from a standstill. 

A little bit later, we got another drive from Clark – this time attacking Boston off the bounce after a switch. Again, the Gamecocks wanted to keep ball screens 2-on-2 so they wouldn't open up three-point shots. 

Even off the ball, the Gamecocks didn't want to provide extra help. Below, Iowa goes to "Wide" action – an early off-ball screen set above the break – to get Clark a catch on the move. Again, peep the right side of the floor with Marshall being face-guarded – meaning no help is coming. 

Another ball screen – two ball screens, even! – where you can see the Gamecocks keeping things 2-on-2. You'll also notice that center Kamilla Cardoso (#10, tremendous game from her overall) is at the level of the screen – more proof that they didn't want Clark to have pull-up pockets to attack. But with no help on the back end – Marshall's in the weak side corner – you see what that opens up. 

One of my favorite possessions from the opening quarter and, honestly, the game itself, was this dart. Iowa goes to "Ricky" action – consisting of a player receiving an off-ball screen, reversing course and immediately coming off another off-ball screen from the same player – that puts two players on Clark, leading to another open layup for Monika Czinano. 

Whew. 

The Gamecocks did attempt to sprinkle different things in, like more traditional drop coverage. That, of course, opened up shots like this.

And then there were the possessions where you just humbly ask, "What the heck am I supposed to do with this?"

All in all, it's hard to fault the gameplan from the Gamecocks. She went 5-of-17 from deep, one of her worst high-volume shooting games of the season. Iowa as a team attempted went 7-of-23, and their 30.4% clip represented the lowest mark since their 96-68 loss to Maryland back in February.

But Clark diced them up inside (10-of-14 on twos), racked up 8 high-value assists, and finished with her second-straight 41-point game. More importantly, Iowa came out with a 77-73 victory.

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