Caitlin Clark will take the stage in a Cleveland Final Four loaded with star players, power programs

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, center, poses with teammates for a photo after Iowa defeated LSU in an Elite Eight round college basketball game during the NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, center, poses with teammates for a photo after Iowa defeated LSU in an Elite Eight round college basketball game during the NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

CLEVELAND (AP) — The final shows for Caitlin Clark’s tour are booked in an arena just a short drive from the Rock & Roll Hall Fame.

Hello, Cleveland.

College basketball’s biggest act — men’s or women’s — will close out her magnificent Iowa career this weekend in the Final Four after Clark delivered a 41-point, 12-assist performance in a win over defending champion LSU.

It was vintage Clark, and typical Clark.

“When the stage is the brightest, when the spotlight is the brightest, she’s at her very best,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday on a Zoom call. “She loves this. Some people wither in the moment. She just gets stronger in the moment.

“When it’s her time, she’s going to just shine.”

Clark, who has spent this season rewriting record books, signing autographs for adoring fans everywhere she goes and excelling despite enormous pressure, will lead the Hawkeyes (33-4) in Friday night’s second semifinal against UConn (33-5), one of the game’s preeminent programs back for a 23rd time under Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma.

In the other semi, undefeated South Carolina (36-0) puts perfection on the line against North Carolina State (32-6), a No. 3 seed that already has pulled off two upsets in the NCAA Tournament and has sights on a third.

“Hey, we’re coming to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you got to crash the party, right?” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said with a smile.

Make no mistake, this is Clark’s party.

She has been the dominant story this season, a generational talent who has lived up to expectations and even pushed beyond them. So maybe it’s fitting that Clark will take her last collegiate shots on the same floor where LeBron James rose from hyped high school phenom to NBA superstardom.

The game’s best outside shooter, Clark has hardly missed.

With the stakes as high as possible on Monday night in Albany, New York, Clark came through. Naturally.

A year after losing in the NCAA title game to the Tigers and star Angel Reese, who famously taunted her in the closing seconds, Clark got even in the rematch with a few flicks of her right wrist.

She dropped nine 3-pointers while passing UConn great Diana Taurasi’s tourney record for 3s, and Clark moved past Oklahoma’s Taylor Robertson for the most 3s in a career for Division I players.

At one point in the second half, LSU guard Hailey Van Lith, who was given the impossible assignment of guarding Clark, reacted with a shrug and a “what am I supposed to do?” expression after watching another 3 fall.

For Bluder, it was nothing new. But the setting made this more special.

“Her distant 3s were spectacular,” Iowa’s coach said. “We asked her to try to get to the rim in the first quarter. I thought she did. She did a great job of that. We wanted her to get some high-percentage easy ones to begin with, and she did.

“In the third quarter, when she took that distant 3 and she nailed it to get us going, I knew then we were in good shape. I never want to talk about her without talking about her passing. Absolutely unbelievable.”

In some ways, so is UConn’s presence in this year’s Final Four, despite its blue-blooded pedigree.

The Huskies have been ravaged by injuries, forcing Auriemma to play four freshmen and leaving him with little depth. Fortunately, he’s still got the marvelous Paige Bueckers, who has returned to her All-America form after missing last season with a knee injury.

Auriemma has had more talented teams, led by stars Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Maya Moore, but this one is unique.

“There’s something about this group that the intangibles are what’s carrying us right now, that grit, that toughness,” said the 70-year-old Auriemma, an 11-time national champion. “Will it hold up in the Final Four? I don’t know. The Final Four, talent takes over in the Final Four. We’ll see what happens, but that’s been the story of this group for the last three years.”

While 12.3 million viewers across America watched Iowa-LSU Part II on a celebratory night for women’s hoops, Moore wasn’t one of them. He had a legitimate excuse: game planning for the talented Gamecocks.

Moore spent the day in his office dissecting film of coach Dawn Staley and her Southeastern Conference champions, who have shown moments of vulnerability during March Madness but head into the weekend favored to cut down the nets in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Sunday.

Moore said when he walked into the house his wife was watching Iowa and he caught Clark putting the finishing touches on LSU.

“I saw the last minute,” he said. “But I’ve seen the highlights. I saw her up close and personal last year. We were fortunate. We went to Iowa a year ago and won. We held Caitlin Clark to 45. I can’t believe I didn’t have coaches calling me last year for my scouting report in the NCAA Tournament.

“She is amazing.”

Some might say the same about the Gamecocks, led by 6-foot-7 All-American center Kamilla Cardoso. They’ve been dominant, but somethings shaky, and Staley wasn’t always convinced this group would be one of the last four standing.

“I’m shocked,” she said. “I’m shocked that we’re undefeated. I’m shocked that we’re here at the Final Four competing for a national championship. Our coaching staff put in a lot of work, and sometimes when you put the work in, it’s returned in this fashion.

“It’s caught us off guard, but I’m super happy for our players because they started from the bottom and then they’re here.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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