With nearly three minutes to play in the fourth quarter and Iowa trailing by 13 in a Feb. 6 Big Ten clash against Michigan, Hawkeyes star guard Caitlin Clark secured an inbounds pass. Inside the Crisler Center, Wolverine fans were split with emotion. Some were electrified as Michigan sat on the cusp of its 21st win of the season. Meanwhile, others patiently sat on the edge of their seats waiting to see what was coming next from the most celebrated scorer in women’s college basketball this season.
From the far-right sideline, Clark weaved quickly through Michigan’s rickety transition defense. On the inside of the maize-blue “M” logo, she launched a three-pointer that ricocheted through the net. It was a sight that has become far too familiar in the sophomore’s career. Despite the eventual eight-point loss for Clark and the Hawkeyes, the sensational 6 ‘guard scored a career-high 46 points and secured her third 40-point game and seventh double-double performance.
Clark, who has continued her ascent as one of the nation’s most prolific players, is college basketball’s box-office movie taking place along the plains of East Iowa. And for the more than 15,000 fans that squeeze inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena to witness the live motion picture, they take it seriously.
“In Iowa, we always say there’s no pro sports,” said Iowa basketball coach Lisa Bluder during the Big Ten basketball media days. “The Iowa Hawkeyes are a big deal.”
Take the Big Ten Network, for example. The all-inclusive, Chicago-based sports channel increased its women’s basketball viewership by 41% compared to last season and increased its recent conference tournament viewership by 76% from the previous record set in 2017. The Feb. 6 matchup was also one of the BTN’s top-five most-watched games this season.
Clark, the Naismith Player of the Year candidate who constantly delivers highlight-reel performances, has also captured the attention of some notable NBA and WNBA’s most prolific athletes.
She leads the nation in points per game (27.4) and total points (821), fifth in field goals (9.1) and 15th in three-pointers (2.9) per game. According to HerHoopStats, Clark also ranks fourth in win shares (11.4), first in offensive win shares (9.9) and seventh in offensive win shares for 40 minutes (0.37). In January, the 2022 Big Ten Player of the Year eclipsed 1,000 points in 40 games, becoming the fastest player to reach the feat that was once held by Ohio State star Kelsey Mitchell (who did it in 41 games) and the fastest Division I player to reach 1,500 points (56 games) over the past 20 seasons.
And while many are locked into Clark’s ability to nail long-range shots and score from any area of the court, she also leads the nation in assists per game (7.9), total assists (236), free throws made (189) and triple doubles (5).
In the Hawkeyes ‘quarterfinals win against Northwestern in the Big 10 tournament, Clark finished with only 19 points, with credit to the Wildcats’ defense anchored by Veronica Burton. Clark, who hit some huge threes in the first half, took on the role of a facilitating point guard in the second half.
“She doesn’t always only have to be the scorer,” Bluder said after the win. “[Caitlin] leads the country in scoring but also leads in assists and people forget that. She’s also our leading rebounder so she does a lot of things besides scoring. “
Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant, who acknowledged Clark’s 46-point performance on his podcast The ETCs with Kevin Durantaligns with Bluder’s point.
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“When you see somebody like her [Clark], it don’t matter what they look like. … When they’re pulling off shots and moves like that, it’s going to draw you in, ”Durant said last month. “Hopefully more people start watching Iowa basketball because they’re definitely going to be a tournament team.”
Like Durant, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young chimed in, saying Clark was “tough.” Even 18-time NBA champion LeBron James, four-time WNBA champion Bird and NBA All-Star Ja Morant graced Clark for her performance by lei.
When looking at Clark’s trajectory, consider the stats of UConn’s Paige Bueckers and the collegiate stats of Liberty guard and Oregon standout Sabrina Ionescu (2020 Naismith, AP Player of the Year) and Washington star Kelsey Plum, the 2021 WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year.
Last season, Bueckers became the first freshman and one of two underclassmen to win the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year, USBWA National Player of the Year and Nancy Lieberman Award. She averaged 20 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 52.4% from the field and 46.4% from three-point range.
Clark currently averages more points this season than when Bueckers and Ionescu won their respective Player of the Year honors in 2021 and 2020. Plum averaged 4.3 more points than Clark in 2017 when she earned the Wooden Award, AP Player of the Year and Naismith College Player of the Year. However, according to HerHoopStats, the Iowa guard currently has the third-fewest offensive win shares — in front of Ionescu and behind Plum and Bueckers.
But when it comes to assist percentage per HHS, Clark (42.6% this season) is second to Ionescu (44.7% in 2020), followed by Plum (29.3% in 2017) and Bueckers (27.1% last season). It speaks to Bluder’s stance on Clark being more than an elite scorer.
While Clark’s chances of winning postseason awards have skyrocketed over the past eight weeks, she is more concerned about bringing more championships and hardware for her program. After the Hawkeyes secured the Big Ten tournament title, Iowa forward and center Monika Czinano said she and her teammates look at their goals on a piece of paper taped to their lockers every day. Those goals included winning championships. This season marked the first time in program history that Iowa won the regular-season and tournament title.
But Clark wants more as she hopes to lead the Hawkeyes to a Final Four — a place the program has not been since 1993 — for a chance to compete in a national championship. Iowa reached the Elite Eight in 2019 before losing to Baylor and being eliminated by UConn in the Sweet 16 last season. However, for every exceptional actor in a movie comes a greater supporting cast. Iowa is the only team with two 20-point scorers in the top 15 in the country in Clark and Czinano (21.1 ppg). But beyond those two lies Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin, McKenna Warnock and Addison O’Grady.
In Iowa’s Big 10 title win against Indiana, Czinano led the team with 30 points and 10 rebounds while Clark finished with 18. Martin, who has recovered from an ACL tear her freshman year, finished with 14 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Her integral role of lei in Iowa’s win was on full display.
“I’ve been saying all year, she’s the glue,” Bluder said. “Lei She’s the person that keeps this team together. She’ll hold her teammates accountable. … Everybody needs a Kate Martin on their team, and sometimes it goes unnoticed. “
As the second-seeded Hawkeyes prepare to face No. 15 seed Illinois State in the NCAA tournament Friday, Clark hopes it’s the beginning of a path to a national championship. A title for Iowa would be the perfect culmination to the big box-office 2021.
More March Madness Coverage:
• Women’s NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown
• What We Learned From Women’s Conference Tourneys
• SI’s 2021–22 Women’s All-Americans