March 28, 2021 

Caitlin Clark has lifted her home-state Hawkeyes into the national conversation

The freshman phenom's season came to an end on Saturday, but she did not go quietly

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Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (#22) attempts a layup in a Sweet 16 game against Connecticut on March 27, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

For a game whose outcome never seriously felt in doubt, UConn’s 92-72 regional semifinal win over Iowa gave basketball fans almost everything they could have asked for — even in Iowa City, where the hometown team came up short.

Iowa is used to playing frenetic, high-scoring games. This was just the first time it was on ABC, against the most storied program in the sport, and with the Elite Eight on the line. It was also the first time freshman star Caitlin Clark faced fellow phenom Paige Bueckers.

Because of them, the story to this game really began last week, when the Huskies beat Syracuse to lock in Saturday’s matchup. That’s when the ESPN/ABC hype machine went into overdrive, hammering a Clark vs. Bueckers matchup into our heads. That’s also when UConn and Iowa Twitter began going at each other, arguing over which player had the better year, with plenty of expletives, blocks, and #HOTTAEKS along the way.

Bueckers is destined to be part of the famous “best player in UConn history” debate. We know that. But as extraordinary as she is, others have come through Storrs and left an indelible mark on the game.

Iowa, despite a rich basketball tradition of its own, just isn’t at the same level. That’s what Clark, at just 19 years old, is out to change.

She’s a West Des Moines native who grew up going to Drake basketball games with her dad and following all the Division I programs in Iowa. As the fourth-ranked recruit in the country, according to ESPN, she chose to stay in-state and attend Iowa when any traditional power would have welcomed her. As a result — and as UConn fans can attest after this week — she has further invigorated a fanbase that feels it belongs in the spotlight. Thanks to her absurd numbers and the hype around her game, she’s also elevated the program to a place it hasn’t been since the early 1990s, when the program reached its only Final Four.

The weight of the moment is not lost on her.

“I thought this was a great opportunity to do something special,” Clark said prior to the Sweet 16. “Doing this as such a young team, I think, speaks volumes to this program, what they’re about, and the culture that they have here.”

Clark has been in the limelight since the season began. She scored 27 points in 26 minutes in her collegiate debut against Northern Iowa, then poured 30 on her hometown Drake Bulldogs. She scored in double figures in all but one game this year and eclipsed 30 points 11 times.

Clark didn’t receive any preseason Big Ten honors but ended as the conference’s Player of the Year. Iowa wasn’t picked in the conference’s preseason top five, and though the Hawkeyes finished sixth in the standings, they were a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Clark was asked about the so-called blue bloods of the sport that are still alive in the tournament — specifically UConn, Baylor, and Stanford. No, Iowa is not mentioned in the same breath, but Clark views getting the program there as a possibility. Iowa has always been good under Lisa Bluder, but never quite great — though that 2019 team was pretty close. Players like Megan Gustafson, who came before Clark and helped Bluder string together winning teams, built on an already established foundation. Clark has lifted the program even higher. Bluder has won 436 games over 21 seasons at Iowa. This was the Hawkeyes’ fifth-straight 20-win season, which was a first in the Bluder era. A sixth in a row is virtually guaranteed in 2021-22.

“That’s another reason I came here, because she just flat-out wins,” Clark said of her coach. “We’re just focused on building a consistent culture and we want to be here every single year.”

In this case, “here” meant on network television on a Saturday afternoon, before the men’s tournament slate even tipped off. We all saw UConn win the game, but we also saw Clark keep her team in it with her patented deep and contested threes that make opposing coaches throw up their hands in disbelief.

The way Clark had to battle for each of her 21 points was impressive enough for Geno Auriemma to pull her aside after the game and offer words of encouragement. He deployed Christyn Williams on her, and Williams managed to hold her to 33% shooting, but some plays were just un-defendable.

“He said, ‘What you’ve done for Iowa this season really has been something special. You have a bright future,’” Clark said. “To hear him say that to me really meant something.”

From here, the hope is that there will be more Clark vs. Bueckers matchups in the next three years. Twitter was rife with calls for a series between the two teams, and UConn athletic director David Benedict even endorsed the idea.

If that happens, those games will be on national TV. There’s no question. Maybe not ABC, but probably on a FOX network. That doesn’t happen without Clark bursting onto the scene the way she has. We may not see her play again until November, but Bluder knows exactly what she has in her young superstar.

“There are so many kids that have a tremendous role model at the University of Iowa in Caitlin Clark,” she said.

That’s a lot to put on an 19-year-old. Not that Clark would have a problem with it.

Written by Russell Steinberg

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