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Clark cherishes 'special' year despite falling short of title again

Steph Chambers / Getty Images Sport / Getty

CLEVELAND (AP) — For 10 glorious minutes on Sunday, Caitlin Clark seemed poise to make the impossible possible one last time.

Shots fell. Iowa’s offense hummed. And the magic the Hawkeyes’ singular star has summoned so often over the last two years while becoming a crossover sensation was at her fingertips.

Then it vanished. Not all at once but little by little.

South Carolina swarmed the Hawkeyes and their unquestioned leader in wave upon wave while pulling away late for an 87-75 victory. The loss — the second Iowa in the national title game in as many years — signaled the end of a remarkable chapter in which the Hawkeyes’ pony-tailed point guard with the limitless range rewrote a significant portion of the NCAA record book and expanded the footprint of the women’s game.

It’s been a remarkable ride. One that Clark tried to focus on after falling just short of delivering her home state the championship she’s long coveted.

“It’s certainly been a special year,” Clark said. “To be honest, after last year I was kind of, like, ‘How do we top doing what we did last year?’ Somehow, some way, every single person in our locker room believed. To be honest, this year was probably more special than last year.”

Even if the ending was the same.

Clark scored 30 points against South Carolina to boost her career total to 3,951, more than any man or woman in major college basketball history. More was required against the Gamecocks. South Carolina weathered an early flurry from Clark — whose 18 first-quarter points marked a championship game record for most in a single period — before accomplishing what so few have been able to during her ascent: it found a way to slow her down.

South Carolina used at least five different defenders on Clark, including guard Raven Johnson, whose steal of Clark near midcourt in the waning seconds of the first half led to a layup and gave the Gamecocks a little breathing room.

Clark’s sizzling start — she made 5 of 8 shots during that torrid first quarter — cooled rapidly. She went just 5 of 20 the rest of the way.

“South Carolina is so good, there’s only so much you can do,” Clark said, adding, “You’ve basically got to shoot perfect.”

You have to basically play perfect, too. Something Clark and the Hawkeyes couldn’t quite pull off. She exited to a long, loud standing ovation with 20 seconds remaining. She exchanged hugs with the coaching staff and her teammates. There were no tears, at least not publicly.

Afterward, pragmatism overshadowed heartbreak. The Gamecocks are historically good and Iowa managed to reach back-to-back title games, heady territory for a program that hadn’t reached the Final Four since 1992 before making it a year ago.

“I think more than anything people will probably remember our two Final Fours and things like that,” Clark said. “But people aren’t going to remember every single win or every single loss. I think they’re just going to remember the moments that they shared at one of our games or watching on TV or how excited their young daughter or son got about watching women’s basketball. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Clark’s run to a second straight NCAA final helped turn the women’s tournament into appointment television. Her performances have set a new TV ratings record for women’s college basketball twice in the last week alone, with another record likely waiting after the title game.

The women’s tournament has reached a level of cultural relevance typically reserved for the guys. “Saturday Night Live” did a skit on the eve of the final in which it focused on Clark and company while taking a light-hearted swipe at the anonymity — by comparison anyway — of this year’s men’s Final Four. Hours before tip-off, major league baseball star Mike Trout showed up for the Anaheim Angels’ game against the Boston Red Sox rocking a Clark jersey. LeBron James gave her a shoutout on X — again — after watching that scorching first quarter.

It’s been a lot to take in, though Clark has tried to take her blossoming stardom in stride, frequently deflecting much of the attention to her Iowa teammates and a tournament that is having a moment.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, a Hall of Fame player before becoming a three-time national champion while leading the Gamecocks, understands the impact Clark has made better than most. She thanked Clark afterward for “lifting up our sport.”

“Her shoulders were heavy and getting a lot of eyeballs on our game,” Staley said. “And sometimes as a young person, it can be a bit much, but I thought she handled it with class. I hope that every step of the ladder of success that she goes, she’s able to elevate whatever room she’s in.”

The WNBA Draft awaits on April 15. The Indiana Fever will likely sprint to the podium to make Clark the first overall pick. Clark knows life is about to come at her fast. It will get here soon enough.

She understands that this time in her life won’t be replicated no matter what lies ahead. She spent time Saturday night looking at pictures from her freshman and sophomore years, marveling at how things changed so quickly.

“I’m not blind to the fact that I need to enjoy this,” she said.

Even in defeat. When Clark arrived on campus in 2020, Iowa was good but hardly great. So was she. Now Clark and the program she’s redefined are both. That’s rare.

“I feel like we took it to a whole other level,” she said. “I feel like our program is in good hands moving forward.”


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