April 7, 2024 

Caitlin Clark is ready for what’s next

She’s gone from the Iowa girl who began her career quietly in the COVID-19 era, with livestreams showing the Hawkeyes' games on weekday afternoons, to the reason that close to 20 million people will likely have tuned in Sunday to watch her final college game

CLEVELAND – Caitlin Clark is ready.

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In four years, she has done all she can do. She has re-written record books, become a household name, and propelled an entire sport forward. She has twice led her team to the NCAA title game.

She’s gone from the Iowa girl who began her career quietly in the COVID-19 era, with livestreams showing the Hawkeyes’ games on weekday afternoons, to the reason that close to 20 million people will likely have tuned in Sunday to watch her final college game.

She has inspired, grown, and matured; she has broken barriers and set new standards, and she has found a way to balance her ambition with her appreciation.

“I just try to take a deep breath and look around as much as I can before the game starts and soak in every single second,” Clark said Saturday.

Caitlin was ready to play on Sunday

As the seconds ticked down on South Carolina’s 87-75 win over the Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes in the national championship at Rocket Mortgage Arena on Sunday afternoon, Clark’s eyes watched the clock. Her face went neutral when she realized she and her team did all they could.

She could not single-handedly counter South Carolina’s +22 rebounding advantage, or their 36-0 margin on bench scoring. She could not make up for the Gamecocks’ size and depth, no matter how many times she tried to drive to the rim or fired away from well beyond the arc.

Clark’s collegiate career closed with a 30-point, eight-rebound, five-assist effort. She became the all-time scoring leader in the NCAA Tournament with 492 career points in 17 games. She also set an NCAA record for her 18 points in the first quarter.

While South Carolina celebrated, Clark left the floor to a standing ovation and walked stoically down the hall and into the locker room.

“I don’t have much time to sit around and sulk and be upset. I don’t think that’s what I’m about either,” Clark said. “Yeah, I’m sad we lost this game, but I’m also so proud of myself, I’m so proud of my teammates, I’m so proud of this program. There’s a lot to be proud of.”

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Caitlin is ready to move on from the NCAA

It’s hard to close this chapter, to take off the uniform and move into a new life away from friends and teammates. But it’s time. She knows she made the right decision to go pro. Sticking around for a fifth year of college basketball would have changed nothing about Clark’s place in the game, though it would have padded her many records. If anything, it might have proven that she stayed too long, that she was a pro playing college basketball for the sake of nostalgia or title-chasing, or that she had fallen to the pressure of a basketball public and sponsors who want to see more.

For players like Clark, and her All-American compatriots Angel Reese and Cameron Brink and even Aliyah Boston last year, four years was simply enough. As it’s supposed to be.

“To be honest, I don’t have many emotions of, like, this is the end for me,” Clark said. “Over the course of the next week, things kind of change in my life quite a bit.”

Caitlin is ready to leave her legacy

On Saturday, the day before her final college game, she was introspective while seeing the bigger picture of her own contribution to the history of the game, whether or not she won a title.

She is the star of this feel-good movie, one in which women’s basketball has exploded into the zeitgeist – the women’s game was the cold-open in “Saturday Night Live,” for crying out loud – and shattered old narratives and assumptions about the limits of the women’s game’s ability to draw and maintain an audience.

Now it’s up to JuJu Watkins, Madison Booker, Hannah Hidalgo and MiLaysia Fulwiley to carry the load. Clark did her part and then some.

“I don’t want my legacy to be, oh, Caitlin won X amount of games or Caitlin scored X amount of points. It’s it’s what I was able to do for the game of women’s basketball,” Clark said. “It’s the young boys and young girls that are inspired to play this sport or dream to do whatever they want to do in their lives.

“I think it’s just the people that we’ve brought together, the joy we’ve brought to people, the way people are recognizing women’s basketball as a sport. It’s fun to watch. Everybody loves it. It can be on the highest of stages. I think you see that with the viewership numbers. To me, for it to come down to 40 minutes and for me to validate myself within 40 minutes, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.”

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Caitlin is ready for what’s next

The legendary Diana Taurasi, who lives to troll WNBA rookies, only half-teases the incoming class that “reality is coming.”

That may be true, but it’s equally true that Clark is more ready for that reality than a lot of guards who have entered the league in recent years. Her prolific scoring may slow, and it’s hard to see WNBA defenders allowing many of the logo 3s, but her ability to pass, to create and to win can translate.

“I think the biggest thing for myself is at the beginning of my career, I thought everything I did had to be perfect … a lot of it always relied on my shooting. I think over the course of my career I’ve been the one that’s been able to realize I’m not going to be perfect every game,” Clark said. “There’s going to be good games. There’s going to be bad games. But I still have to be somebody that my team can lean on in those moments. And I also think that I don’t have to score every single point for my team to win.”

She doesn’t have to take the world’s best professional league by storm in order to have an impact. Look no further than the fact that the Las Vegas Aces have moved their July 2 game against the Indiana Fever to T-Mobile Arena, a much larger venue, to accommodate the demand for tickets. And a spot on the U.S. Olympic team roster may well await, with the potential of turning her into an international star on a world stage.

Caitlin is ready

On Saturday, Clark said, “Basketball is not a perfect game.” On Sunday, she did not get the perfect ending. But she got what she deserved, admiration and respect.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, in the postgame celebration, asked ESPN’s Holly Rowe for additional time. She leaned into the microphone and said “I want to thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport and it’s just not going to stop here. When she is the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft, she will lift that league up as well.”

Once she declared on Feb. 29 that she was going pro, Clark put her future plans away and focused on finishing her Iowa career. “I’ve been 110 percent focused on finishing my career here,” Clark said. “I know what’s next is soon. At the same time, I’m not blind to the fact that I need to enjoy this. I need to soak this in and enjoy these last few moments with my teammates.”

The transition now is just a matter of days – eight to be exact. On April 15, Clark will sit in an art museum in Brooklyn, awaiting selection as the 28-year-old league’s most anticipated No. 1 pick, perhaps, in history. Her first professional game will be in 37 days.

And the game will wait with excitement and anticipation about what she does next.

You are ready, Caitlin.

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Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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