March 22, 2024 

Inside Caitlin Clark’s final NCAA tournament run

Iowa phenom taking it one game at a time

Although Caitlin Clark realizes each game from here on out could be her last in an Iowa uniform, the superstar is approaching the NCAA Tournament in a businesslike manner with a clear-cut goal. 

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“It doesn’t really feel like this is the end for us. I feel like that’s not really how we’re approaching it,” she told reporters Friday. “I feel like we’re approaching it like this is very businesslike. We are here to win, get back to the Final Four. I feel like if you approach it in a way of ‘this is the end, this is our last time playing on our home court, this is our last time hosting,’ you could get too caught up in the emotions of it.”

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“Sure, you’re going to feel the emotions at some point. I think just approaching it like a businesslike manner and going 1-0 every single day is always what Coach [Lisa] Bluder says,” she continued. “You can’t be too worried about when it’s going to end or how it’s going to end. You’ve just got to enjoy the moments and live in the moments and don’t let them pass you by.”

When it was announced Sunday the program received its first No. 1 seed since 1992, the Iowa players, coaches and staff and their families gathered together at Carver-Hawkeye Arena were excited, but subdued. They saw the talent throughout the Albany 1 Region bracket, which includes Kansas State and LSU, both of whom they have lost to in the past year, and powerhouse UCLA. 

The core of this Hawkeye team has been in the NCAA Tournament every year of their college career, advancing to last year’s national championship game but losing to LSU, 102-85

“I’ve experienced four [NCAA Tournaments], Kate [Martin] has experienced five,” Clark said Sunday after the selection show. “It’s fun for us and you got to use that to your advantage, that knowledge and that experience.

“I think more than anything, you have to show up every single night, and our team should know that better than just about anybody in the country with the experience that we have,” Clark continued. “But there’s also quite a few girls on our team that lost to Creighton [in the second round at home in 2022], and there’s also a lot of girls on our team that advanced to the national title game.”

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One game at a time

The first order of business for Iowa is Saturday’s game against Holy Cross, which easily beat University of Tennessee-Martin, 72-45, in a play-in game Thursday in Iowa City. 

The Crusaders, who won the Patriot League Tournament, are doing everything they can to prepare for playing against college basketball’s arguably best – and most famous – player in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,000 hostile fans.   

“She’s a celebrity. I think she’s the face of college basketball right now. As another woman in the sport, you’ve got to respect everything she’s done for bringing attention to the women’s game,” Holy Cross guard Bronagh Power-Cassidy told reporters Friday. “But I think once you’re between the four lines, you’re kind of like, ‘OK, there’s 94 feet, there’s two baskets.’ I think we just want to be present in the moment and realize the stage we’re on. It’s just kind of taking that in.”

Forward Janelle Allen agreed that the stage is as big and bright as any they’ve ever faced, but they are focused on the task at hand. 

“Of course we all watch her, so when you’re a woman in any sport or anyone in general, everyone is watching her,” she said Friday. “Of course there’s excitement. Of course there’s this little moment where it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to be on the same court as her.’ But at the same time once you step on the court and you tie your shoes, you’re a competitor, you’re not a fan.”

Holy Cross head coach Maureen Magarity concedes that there’s not much her team can do to prepare for Division I’s all-time leading scorer.   

“We had our film session right before we came to the gym. It’s hard not to be in awe of everything she does. She just does everything at such an elite level, her scoring obviously, her passing, her court vision,” Magarity said Friday. “Like you said, she could arguably be the best player to ever play the game, and I think what an incredible opportunity we have to just shoot our best shot. We’re here. We’re here for a reason. We’ve earned this.”

Iowa is not overlooking Holy Cross. The Crusaders put on a dynamic shooting display Thursday night, led by Cara McCormack’s 23 points, including 7-for-10 from the 3-point line.  

“They have some good 3-point shooters. We got to watch the game yesterday and it was fun to see what they do,” Iowa graduate guard Kate Martin told reporters Friday. “We’re going to have to defend from the 3-point line and continue working on what we do, pushing the ball. We have some size advantages, so we have to take advantage of that to the best of our ability. They’re a good team, you can’t underestimate anyone.”

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Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, left, and Addison O’Grady warm up during practice Friday, March 22, 2024 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. © Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Keeping focused amidst the noise

Between the sold-out crowds home and away, the scoring records and looking forward to the WNBA draft in which she is the presumptive top pick, Clark remains focused on graduating and returning to the Final Four.

“I think it’s been a journey, and it’s honestly gone really fast, and obviously this last year has been really crazy. My life has been really crazy, all of our lives have been crazy,” she said. “My main goal and my main focus is basketball and school and getting my degree, and that’s where I spend all of my time.”

She realizes she can’t carry the team herself to a deep run in the tournament, and looks toward her teammates to be peaking at the right time. 

“I guess that’s the thing where I find kind of peace in; I don’t feel like this is a job,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to go out there and score 40 points a night. I just go out there and have fun.

“At the same time, I know this is a team sport. I have four other people on the court with me at the same time, and I can rely on them. I’m going to need them if we want to reach our goals in March. It can’t just be me. And they’ve been playing amazing basketball, too.” 

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder is ready for Saturday’s game nearly two weeks after the Hawkeyes won their third straight Big Ten Tournament with a 94-89 overtime win over Nebraska. 

“We’re looking at one game at a time. To me, this is a two-game tournament this week, and then next week is a two-game tournament. That’s how we look at it. We break it into segments,” she said Friday. “I’m not even looking at next week. I’m concerned about Holy Cross right now, and then if we can get by them, that next game.”

The winner of the Iowa-Holy Cross game will face the winner of the following first-round game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena between Princeton and West Virginia. The second round will be played Monday in Iowa City. 

Written by Angie Holmes

Angela Holmes is the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) reporter for The Next. Based in the Midwest, she also covers the Big Ten and Big 12.

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