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Iowa Hawkeyes have to play as a team in biggest game of their lives

It will take an all-hands-on-deck effort for the Iowa Hawkeyes to pull off the feat of dethroning the reigning champion South Carolina Gamecocks.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Iowa Photo by Rebecca Gratz/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The ascendance of Iowa women’s basketball has captured the hearts of the country throughout this whole season. Every step of the way we were in awe as coach Lisa Bluder led a dynamic group of young women with distinguishing personalities and a fast-paced style of play to Dallas for the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1993.

Of course, we can’t talk about the Hawkeyes without mentioning the incomparable Caitlin Clark. Her game, leadership and humility make her one of a kind. She exudes a passion for the game and for her team that lovers of basketball not only appreciate but want to emulate. She’s everything you could ever ask for in a team player and for that reason among others she was rightfully crowned the Naismith Player of the Year.

But she would be the first to say that she is not alone.

With Monika Czinano, Kate Martin, Gabbie Marshall and McKenna Warnock and a vibrant bench helping to carry the load, the Hawkeyes have put Big Ten women’s basketball on the map and they now will have a chance to make their biggest statement not just of the year, but in the history of the program.

Their national semifinal opponent will be the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks, who have been ranked No. 1 all year long and are undefeated. If they were to win it again, they would be the 10th team in the history of the women’s game to do so unbeaten and the first team since the 2015 and 2016 UConn Huskies to win back-to-back titles.

According to CBS Sports, the Gamecocks are 11.5-point favorites to win. They are also the best defensive team in the nation, whose physical play has been able to stifle opposing offenses. Propelled by that prowess, they have steamrolled their opponents into oblivion with an average margin of victory at 29.5 points.

Their starting five is loaded and they possess a triple threat of Aliyah Boston, Brea Beal, and Zia Cooke that will give the Hawkeyes a run for their money.

Boston was named Defensive Player of the Year and has the ability to score inside, hit the glass (9.8 rebounds per game) and convert solidly at the free throw line (75.7 percent). She demonstrates a consistency similar to that of Czinano. Beal is the Gamecocks’ playmaker and workhorse who can do a little bit of everything. She can score, pass, and rebound when she needs to in the same way as Warnock and Martin. Cooke is their leading scorer, averaging 15.1 points, and can shoot from long range, not with the frequency of Clark, but with regularity.

The Hawkeyes arguably have the most explosive offenses in the country. They lead the nation with an average of 87.5 points compared to the Gamecocks’ 80, but they will have to play the best defense they have played all year long if they want a chance.

A major theme of that will be to try to limit the Gamecocks on the offensive glass as much as possible. A huge portion of South Carolina’s points come from second chance buckets, as they average 16.8 offensive rebounds compared to the Hawkeyes’ 7.8.

If the Hawkeyes are able to have everyone crash the boards on defense, then they can get back into their transition offense where they can move the ball as well as they do, create spacing inside or on the perimeter and score with ease, which in turn with tire out the Gamecocks.

It will also be a battle of the benches. The Gamecocks lead the nation in bench points per game at 36 and have a greater depth. But the Hawkeyes are too far behind as Hannah Stuelke, Molly Davis and Syd Affolter have averaged a total of 38.1 minutes per game and stepped in to fill the void for the starters at critical moments. Stuelke is known for her tenacious rebounding, quickness in running the floor and ability to fight her way through the paint to score inside. Davis is good at ball handling, creating space and scoring from and within the 3-point line. Affloter can also muscle her way inside, draw the foul and be reliable, shooting a whopping 86 percent from the free throw line.

Those three stepping up will be huge for the Hawkeyes.

In all, defense, rebounding and smooth transition offense will be key for the Hawkeyes to pull off what would be a pretty big upset even though they are a No. 2 seed.

If there was ever a historical comparison to the hype surrounding this game, it would be the 1991 NCAA men’s semifinal between the then-undefeated and defending champion UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and the upstart Duke Blue Devils. It was a clash of differing styles of play and a collection of star talent, and a duel between two of the best coaches, making it an instant classic with Duke upsetting UNLV before winning the title.

The only difference is that they met the year prior in the national title game for the first time with UNLV winning by over 30 points.

This will be the first time that Iowa will play against South Carolina. This is what everyone has been waiting for and the Hawkeyes have the chance to continue their magical run and earn a shot at their first national title. To do so on one of the biggest nights in the history of the game would be nothing short of incredible.

Iowa City waits on pins and needles.

No. 2 seed Iowa (30-6) plays No. 1 seed South Carolina (36-0) at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.