Jim O'Donnell: Will Iowa-South Carolina provide the fairy tale ending so much of America wants?

DID ANYONE REALLY EXPECT the headline to read:

“Controversial foul call dooms Caitlin, Iowa in NCAA semifinal loss to UConn?”

Fairy tales don't play out that way. Especially fairy tales that involve millions of TV eyeballs and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in media rights fees somewhere over the foul lane.

Most of America got the result it wanted Friday night. That was when Princess Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes hung on to beat Geno Auriemma's resilient Huskies 71-69.

All of America got the basketball theater it wanted — even the remote-throwing unhappy east of the Hudson River. That's no small consideration among sports dramatists.

INDUSTRY EXPERTS PROJECT that today's national championship game between Iowa and unbeaten South Carolina will draw close to 20 million viewers (2 p.m., ABC).

A South Carolina-UConn match would likely have strained to draw half of that number.

If the major estimate is fulfilled, the game will top the record set Friday night. An audience of 14.2 million watched the Hawkeyes and UConn. That made it the most-viewed women's game ever and the most-watched basketball game in the 45-year history of ESPN.

Heading into the weekend, the new women's standard was the 12.3 million who saw Iowa's 94-87 big payback to defending national champ Angel Reese and LSU in an Elite Eight game Monday night.

(The largest basketball audience ever for ESPN was Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals between Boston and Cleveland. The count for that contest was 13.5 million. The 2023 NCAA men's final featuring UConn-San Diego State — on CBS — averaged a record-low 14.7 million.)

Such is the kinetic magnetism of Clark, who will play her final collegiate game this afternoon at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland.

A nation awaits. Vegas scoffs.

THOSE PRAGMATIC ODDSMAKERS have South Carolina as 6½-point favorites — with good reason.

One year ago, Lisa Bruder's Hawkeyes dealt the Gamecocks a stinging 77-73 defeat in an NCAA semi.

Clark fed her own renown. She finished with 41 points. But she also made only 5 of 17 of her trademark 3s (10 of 14 elsewhere).

In the 53 weeks since, Bruder has merely shuffled some parts internally to cover lost graduates. Clark has been properly facilitating enough to do most of the rest.

Dawn Staley — South Carolina's seasoned head coach — has built and expanded with the crescendo moment vs. Iowa long ago circled as Goal A of the Gamecocks' 2023-24 season.

STALEY'S ENSEMBLE IS deep, big and unscarred in battle. The anchor is 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso. No perimeter mate is more important than Oregon transfer Te-Hina Paopao.

South Carolina is 37-0 and over the past three seasons 108-3.

Perhaps most importantly, anything Clark can do on a college basketball court, she's done. She is normally transcendent from long range, can close rushes at the rim and her passing in transition has reached the point where it's sometimes too beam-intense for more human teammates.

Her mid-range game is erratic. But are you going to criticize Taylor Swift because she doesn't have Dave Grohl's rock-and-grunge hair?

Auriemma — with a record 11 NCAA titles on his coaching shelf — also reworked the ancient cut-off-the-head defensive stratagem Friday night. He had Nika Muhl hound Clark like a fresh-legged Cleveland cop chasing a pickpocket across Public Square. If the Huskies were going to be beat, it wasn't Clark who was going to do it.

THE MUHL-TIDE MANEUEVER worked well in the first half. Clark missed all 6 of her 3-point tries and was essentially neutralized in the half-court.

Things opened up a bit in the second half. Clark went 3 of 5 deep, finishing with a sub-average 21 points. Staley was watching.

Today she will unveil her stop-Clark pinzering.

DEEPEST BASKETBALL HISTORIANS stretch to find any NCAA championship game that might be somewhat analogous to this afternoon's marquee topper.

One qualifier is the landmark 1979 men's finale between Larry Bird and Indiana State vs. Magic Johnson and Michigan State.

At tipoff Bird had improbably crafted the more magical season. His Sycamores were 33-0 despite a pedestrian supporting cast. (Carl Nicks, Indiana State's next-best player, notoriously couldn't make clutch free throws.)

Magic and associates including Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent had steadily gotten better throughout a demanding Big Ten season and NCAA Tournament whirl. They were 25-6 entering the historic game in Salt Lake City.

Still, Vegas had Michigan State up as 5½-point favorites.

MAGIC TOOK BACK the magic in the first half. MSU led 37-28 at the break. They then punched out to a 50-34 lead and won 75-64. Bird shot 33 percent (7 of 21) from the floor. The Spartans were a breezy cover.

South Carolina is cast in the Michigan State role today.

But theatrical basketball America wants the ball in Caitlin Clark's hands with a chance to win inside of the final 17 seconds.

Miss or make, she departs the collegiate terrain with an unquestionable legacy as a mythic shooting star who has greatly advanced the popularity of the women's game.

Even if it takes a bada-boom call or two down the stretch to make it all happen.

In the whistling of fairy tales, the favored call that literary license.

Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears each week on Sunday and Wednesday. Reach him at All communications may be considered for publication.

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