June 14, 2024

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Kaitlin Clark leads Iowa State past UConn for its second straight national championship appearance

Kaitlin Clark leads Iowa State past UConn for its second straight national championship appearance

CLEVELAND – Gabby Marshall recognized this fact immediately.

The moment she met UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards, Marshall knew she had moved and an illegal screen would have to be called.

Just moments later, it was, and with three seconds left and Iowa clinging to a one-point lead, the game was almost over. Iowa State beat UConn 71-69 and is now poised for its second straight national championship game, while UConn heads home in heartbreaking fashion.

All Marshall, who has made big defensive plays for Iowa State all year, can do is cheer.

“I was so happy and excited,” Marshall said. “I knew in my mind it was. This was her third moving screen of the game, and we knew it was a big moment.”

In a matchup hyped as Iowa State's Kaitlyn Clark versus UConn's Paige Bueckers, two of the final three national players of the year, the score was much more than they were.

Bueckers finished with 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting. Clark scored 21 points on 7-of-18 shooting, but neither team would have been in the game if their stars were the only ones showing up.

The Huskies got a big boost from Edwards, who had 17 points and eight rebounds despite the final foul. KK Arnold, who got a steal in less than 10 seconds to set up the final possession had 14 points, 5 assists and 5 steals in her first Final Four.

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But it was Iowa State's supporting cast that made the difference. Forward Hannah Stolke was Iowa State's top scorer with 23 points. It was only the second time this year that Clark did not lead the Hawkeyes in scoring.

“I thought tonight she played with all her energy and ability to go in there and dominate,” Clark said. “She goes toe-to-toe with Aaliyah Edwards, who in my opinion is one of the best players in the country.”

However, Iowa State was a team led by Clark but also a team that got big contributions in big moments. Like Sydney Affolter, whose missed free throw from Clark was rebounded with three seconds left. Or Kate Martin, who scored 11 points and 8 rebounds.

Iowa's supporting cast stepped up when needed especially when Clark struggled to open the game.

She shot 3 of 11 and didn't make a 3-pointer in the first half from the field early, and UConn opened up a 12-point lead with 5:18 remaining in the first half. Affolter then scored 6 of Iowa State's final 8 points to cut the deficit to six points at the start of the second half.

From there, it was a back and forth relationship. Clark made her first 3-pointer with 8:39 left in the third quarter and sent the sold-out crowd at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse into a frenzy.

The Huskies came back on their own in the fourth quarter.

With Iowa State's offense in the groove, UConn trailed by nine points with 5:42 remaining. For an injury-depleted UConn team that played just six players, it looked like it had run out of gas after playing most of the season short benched due to injuries.

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However, UConn stepped up.

“Our doctors do a really good job of making sure we rest, recover and get the treatment we need,” Bueckers said. “And then just being competitors, we're just grateful to be here and try not to take any of that for granted and not think about getting tired or thinking about what hurts us and what hurts us and how tired we are. And just be grateful to be here and just try to continue to play with that heart and play with that mindset of not getting tired.”

Trailing by four points with 50 seconds left, guard Nika Moll stole a poor pass from Martin and hit a 3-pointer on the other end. Then came Arnold's steal that set up UConn's final possession.

Instead of getting a snap, UConn went home after calling an illegal screen.

“Anyone can build a great deal off of that individual game, but no one game wins a basketball game or loses a basketball game,” Bueckers said. “I feel like there were a lot of mistakes I made that could have prevented that play from being that big or caused the game. So, you can look at one play and say, ‘Oh, that killed us or that hurt us.’ But we should have done “I should have done a better job of making sure we didn't leave the game to chance like that and leave the game to one bad decision coming our way and that's what would decide it.”

But it was that play that set up one more game for Clark in an Iowa uniform and a rematch against top-seeded South Carolina after the Hawkeyes ended their undefeated season in the Final Four last year.

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(Photo: Steve Chambers/Getty Images)