It felt like it was a typical game day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The concession stand was open. The fans stood up for the playing of the national anthem. The band was going and the cheer squad was in formation. When the opposing starting lineups were introduced, there were loud boos. When their Hawkeyes were introduced, the crowd roared.
There were the typical fan engagement activities such as the dance cam, T-shirt giveaway, sinking a putt to win a prize and the Panchero’s Burrito Lift.
It was everything you could ask for even though the Iowa women’s basketball team was 810 miles away in Dallas. It was playing for the national championship against LSU in search of its first-ever title.
In order to give the fans the vicarious experience of a lifetime, Carver was opened free to the public to watch the game on the jumbotron. Originally, there were plans to host a watch party to witness Iowa’s eventual upset over South Carolina on Friday, but bad weather forced the event to be canceled.
On Sunday, the sunshine was out, it was in the 50s outside, and the fans poured in by the thousands to witness history.
The first quarter can only be characterized as a period to get the juices flowing. For every Iowa basket, the crowd was on their feet and cheering with thunder. The back-and-forth battle that ensued set the tone for what was bound to happen.
Caitlin Clark scored 14 points to lead all scorers after one, but LSU shot 53 percent from the field compared to the Hawkeyes’ 50 percent and the Tigers led 27-22. The Hawkeyes came out ready to play but the Tigers were right there with them, setting the stage for what was potentially destined to be another classic in a two-day span.
As the second quarter unfolded, it was all LSU. The Tigers were scoring at will to reach a 13-point lead at one point facilitated by the relentlessness of Jasmine Carson, who scored 21 first-half points. As that was going on and the Hawkeyes were hindered at both ends, Clark only scored a bucket in the quarter plus. There was virtual silence amongst the Hawkeye faithful in Carver.
The air went out completely when Carson hit a miraculous buzzer-beater to put the Tigers up by 17 at the break.
Things weren’t looking good and there was a sense that the fun could soon be over as everyone was heading to the concession stand or the restroom.
The dynamic in the building remained the same as the third quarter was underway and LSU was still in control of the game.
But little by little things began to pick up.
At the 7:51 mark of the third, Clark hit a 3-pointer that briefly got the crowd back into it and she made history in the process. She reached an NCAAW-record 180 points in a single Big Dance, passing Sheryl Swoopes’ 177 in 1993.
Shortly thereafter, Monika Czinano muscled her way into the lane to lay it up off the glass while getting fouled. She hit the free throw to cut the Tiger lead to 15 at 63-48. Then Carver was back into a mild frenzy when Warnock hit a 3-pointer to cut it to 12 at 63-51.
With under six minutes left in the third, the place went wild when Gabbie Marshall hit a wide-open three to conclude a 12-0 Iowa run and cut it to single digits at 63-54. The chants of “Let’s go Hawks! Let’s go Hawks!” started to softly pick up and approaching the five-minute mark, it was a Clark 3-pointer that cut it to 65-57.
There was a renewed sense of optimism in Carver as it was now once again a basketball game.
Eventually, the Hawkeyes were able to cut the once 21-point lead down to seven with just under three minutes left to play in the quarter. The teams then exchanged baskets and it was still LSU with the edge.
At the 1:03 mark of the third, Clark was called for a technical foul after she flung the ball behind her as she huddled with her teammates. That gave her foul No. 4, which put her, Czinano, and Warnock in the same precarious boat. It became time for the bench, which had been outscored and outmatched all game, to step up with one quarter left and Iowa trailing 75-64.
As the fourth quarter began, there was a palpable feeling of uncertainty with an underlying excitement about what magic might be left for the Hawkeyes. They had to work for one basket at a time and had to play tough but smart defense.
At 8:42 remaining, Kate Martin hit a big 3-pointer to cut it back to single digits at 77-69. But the Tigers’ transition offense, the outstanding offensive rebounding of Angel Reese and the sharpshooting of players such as Flau’jae Johnson, LaDazhia Williams and Alexis Morris sustained LSU.
With Iowa trailing by 14 at 6:25 remaining, Czinano fouled out of her last college game. As she walked to the bench and was greeted by her teammates, she didn’t know it, but she received a standing ovation back home in appreciation for all she has meant to the program over a five-year period.
As the minutes wound down, the feeling of defeat began to set in as the Tigers continued to rack up the points and got back to a double-digit lead.
At 1:33, Warnock fouled out of her final college game, as she will begin pursuing dental school in the next chapter of her life. Back at Carver, some fans started to gather their things and head for the door, but the overwhelming majority stayed put until the final buzzer.
When that buzzer sounded, it was LSU that captured its first national championship with a 102-85 victory. Iowa may not have come away with the ultimate prize but it had its best season ever.
The exploits of Clark, the veteran guidance of Czinano, the work ethic of Warnock, the tenacity of Martin, the sharpshooting of Marshall, the excitement of Hannah Steulke and the leadership of head coach Lisa Bluder made the Hawkeyes an official powerhouse.
When next year comes, some will be absent, but most will return, including Clark, Marshall, Martin and Stuelke.
Upon their return to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes will be welcomed back with open arms by one of the most devoted fan bases, one that stuck with them through thick and thin.
From Carver-Hawkeye Arena, until we meet again.