DALLAS -- All season, it felt as if South Carolina was headed for an impending coronation. The Gamecocks dominated opponents with such ease, it seemed hard to envision how they would lose.
Not a team with this much size, depth, physicality and rebounding prowess. Not a team with Aliyah Boston, the projected No. 1 player in the upcoming WNBA draft if she declares. Not a team with Dawn Staley on the sideline, the coach who has made South Carolina the new standard-bearer.
Even headed into its Final Four matchup against Iowa and player of the year Caitlin Clark on Friday night, it felt so simple to say South Carolina would physically wear down the high-flying Hawkeyes and the most electrifying player in college basketball.
Then the game started, and the most infallible team in the country looked ... fallible. Clark pushed the pace, driving into the lane untouched, making beautiful touch passes inside that her teammates easily dropped in the basket. She was the unquestioned star on the court, and South Carolina seemed helpless to keep up.
Even as the Gamecocks made runs to challenge Iowa, the Hawkeyes never seemed to lose their grip on the game. Boston played most of it in foul trouble, and Clark took center stage, dazzling with every move, her smooth shot moving the Hawkeyes closer and closer to the improbable.
When it was over, Iowa had defeated South Carolina 77-73, pulling off the biggest upset in the Final Four since 2017, when No. 1 UConn lost in overtime in the national semifinals to Mississippi State, snapping a 111-game winning streak. The team that beat Mississippi State to win the first national title in program history?
There will be no repeating as national champions for the Gamecocks, no perfect season. Staley said Thursday that "the juice was in winning the national championship," yet her team could not muster enough down the stretch to pull off the comeback win.
"I don't think we felt pressure to win the game, we just didn't perform," Staley said. "And that hasn't been us all season long."
She added: "I'm pretty numb right now. I just want to make sure my players are OK. Some of them just played their last game in a Gamecock uniform. I want to make sure I'm there for them. I want to make sure their hearts aren't hurting too bad."
Clark finished with 41 points for the second straight NCAA tournament game, throwing her team on her back again, growing her legend all the same. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, she is the first player in NCAA tournament history with back-to-back 40-point games.
Now she gets a shot at a national championship the Gamecocks thought would be theirs. The Hawkeyes will play LSU for the championship on Sunday afternoon.
"We had nothing to lose. I have all the confidence in the world in this group, and they believe right back in me, and that's all you need," Clark said. "All we do is believe in one another and we love each other to death, and that's what a true team is. If you want an example of a team, that's what this is."
South Carolina had not lost a game since the SEC tournament final against Kentucky in 2022, a crushing defeat that set the table for this magnificent run. Since then, the Gamecocks have become the standard-bearer in women's college basketball, the measuring stick by which all others are judged.
Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal elevated them further, as starters together since their freshman seasons in 2019, taking South Carolina to three straight Final Fours and unprecedented heights. It was Cooke who kept the Gamecocks in the game in the first half after Boston exited late in the first quarter in foul trouble.
Boston had zero points in the first half, a stunning stat line considering how dominant she has been throughout her career. Cooke directly blamed the officiating, and said Boston had to alter her game once she returned because she was fearful she would foul out.
"It definitely affects you because we need Aliyah's points to win games," Cooke said. "She wasn't out there, and I saw her on the bench way too much, and it wasn't her fault."
Staley said Boston didn't have the "freedom of movement" she is used to.
"Because of that, she was strapped, but we've done that to other people as well, so I guess we got a taste of our own medicine," Staley said.
Clark, meanwhile, scored or assisted on 31 of Iowa's 38 points in that opening half, showing once again just how worthy she was of winning player of the year honors this season.
Cooke played the entire first half and had 18 points. Somehow, South Carolina trailed by only one point at the break.
But even when Boston returned in the second half, South Carolina could not quite find the "juice." Kamilla Cardoso was a consistent force inside, but every time the Gamecocks edged closer, Clark and Iowa had an answer.
With 21 seconds left and South Carolina trailing 73-71, the Gamecocks had one last chance to save their season. Clark missed a 3-point shot, and the best rebounding team in the nation failed to grab the rebound, a high statistical improbability, considering what the Gamecocks have done all season. McKenna Warnock grabbed it, and South Carolina had no choice but to foul. Iowa then closed the door on the Gamecocks' perfect season.
"That was a long shot and a long rebound," said Boston, who finished with eight points. "Those can be really hard just based on how hard that came off the backboard, and that shot ricocheted off the backboard. It was really high, and we just weren't in the position to get it."
Staley pointed to three straight possessions late in the game when her team turned the ball over, saying that had a direct impact on the outcome. Beal said she felt the team started pressing late in the game as time was ticking off the clock, especially since the Gamecocks had not been in a close game since an overtime win against Ole Miss on Feb. 19.
"When it gets so late into the game, you're like, 'We've got to do something,'" Beal said. "Now you're kind of in panic mode because nobody wants to lose -- especially at this point in the season. We're definitely disappointed. It's not easy to have your last game a loss and expecting more from your team."
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Staley and her players looked stunned. Clark threw the ball up in the air as Iowa celebrated at midcourt. Cooke left the court in tears. Nobody on the South Carolina bench ever considered this would be the way the Gamecocks' season would end. But sometimes, perfect seasons don't get the perfect ending.
In the Gamecocks' locker room afterward, there was a sense of resigned disbelief. Nobody cried. Rather, players respectfully answered questions with little emotion, perhaps finding it too difficult to process the way their season had just ended.
"I've been holding in a lot of emotions, just until we won," Cooke said. "It was over quicker for me than I expected. I thought I would be here for two more days, and then I would be expected to cry then. I didn't expect to cry with a loss."