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How Caitlin Clark and Iowa discovered their championship-level blueprint

How Caitlin Clark and Iowa discovered their championship-level blueprint

9:59 PM ET

  • M.A.


      M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

DALLAS — She’s been the talk of March Madness, the 21-year-old junior point guard who has scored or assisted on 64% of the Iowa Hawkeyes‘ points in the 2023 NCAA tournament. She can hit NBA range 3-pointers and toss no-look bounce passes with equal ease. And she has much of her adoring home state of Iowa (minus some rival Iowa State Cyclones fans) in the palm of her hand.

Caitlin Clark is a hoops junkie and historian, who as a kid instantly fell in love with basketball and now has fans nationwide in love with the way she plays it. Clark has scored 41 points in each of her last two games: first to advance to the women’s Final Four, and then to upset the then-undefeated No. 1 overall seed South Carolina Gamecocks to secure Iowa’s first national championship appearance Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) against the LSU Tigers.

When asked Saturday about comparisons to LSU Tigers legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Pete Maravich, whose NBA career ended 22 years before Clark was born, she grinned and said, “I’ve seen a lot of his highlights. Obviously a tremendous compliment. I saw somebody called me ‘Ponytail Pete.'”

Clark is ultra-prepared for this spotlight but has also become very good at sharing it with her teammates, her coaching staff and women’s basketball in general. Clark thinks big-picture in a way that seems — much like her skill set — well beyond her age.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘never,’ but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a player that can do what Caitlin does,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said after Clark dismantled South Carolina’s top-ranked defense.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Gosh, she’s special.”

Clark has seen it all from opposing defenses — double-teams, traps, box-and-ones, multiple chasers. But the 6-foot Clark has still averaged 27.7 points, 8.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds (32.2 points, 10.4 assists and 5.8 rebounds in five tournament games) heading into Sunday’s championship.

When you hear talk of Clark being a transformational player, it’s that combination of elite scoring at all three levels and playmaking that people are so wowed by. How many teams’ best 3-point shooter is also their best at getting to the rim and the best at passing and the best at directing the offense?

Yet Dec. 1, when the Hawkeyes’ record fell to 5-3 after a loss at home to the NC State Wolfpack despite Clark’s season-high 45 points on 16-for-28 shooting, it left Iowa’s superstar wondering if that type of usage was actually hurting her team.

“I think whenever I score 40 points, we lose,” Clark said after that 94-81 defeat. “So it’s not something I want to do.”

Iowa was 2-3 in games when Clark scored 40 or more points. Since the NC State loss, Iowa has won all three games in which she has scored 40 or more. Clark and her team have grown as a group.

“I think we all understood our potential,” Clark said Saturday. “It was just we all had to give more. We had to get back to what we’re really good at, and that’s sharing the basketball.”

The Hawkeyes have only three losses since, with the last coming Feb. 21 against the Indiana Hoosiers. To get here, an Iowa starting lineup that has been together for three seasons has unified in their pursuit of a title.

There is nothing “wrong” with Clark’s 40-point games now. It’s not that there ever really was. But despite her nightly scoring prowess, Iowa’s read-and-react style could have been disrupted by a star who didn’t care as deeply as Clark does about elevating the play of her teammates.

“The crown that Caitlin wears is heavy sometimes,” Iowa senior forward/center Monika Czinano said. “There’s a lot going on for her, so anything we can do to alleviate some of that pressure is huge. But I think the biggest thing we can do for each other is just … we’re a bunch of college kids. Just having fun with each other. Keeping things light and loose.”

Clark’s teammates and coaches say she is the easiest player to tease; she’s always in the gym, always talking and quick to laugh — especially at herself. Her impressive poise and confidence in the heat of a game is matched by her demeanor when asked about her logo shooting range or how it feels knowing thousands of children are launching “Caitlin 3s” from deep in their driveways.

Clark was that exact kind of kid not long ago, watching one of her idols, former UConn Huskies star Maya Moore win championships with the Minnesota Lynx, the closest WNBA team to Clark’s hometown of West Des Moines. Saturday, Clark also recalled being at the 2012 women’s NCAA regional in Des Moines when she was 10 years old, watching Mulkey lead the Baylor Bears over the Tennessee Lady Vols in the last game the late Pat Summitt ever coached.

No one has to tell Clark these facts. She sees everything, she recalls everything. And if she simply isn’t old enough to have seen it, she researches it. For Clark, knowing the whole story matters.

As for her own story, Clark has helped lead a team that was upset in the second round at home last season by No. 10 seeded Creighton Bluejays, to being one step away from a national championship. The Hawkeyes couldn’t possibly be here without Clark, but she would immediately say she wouldn’t be here without them.

“I think my teammates understand I am fiery, I am competitive, and I think that’s what they feed off of,” Clark said. “They’ve just had my back through it all. I’m lucky enough to have teammates like that that understand the competitor I am, and I think that’s what makes us who we are.”

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