It was nearly midnight Friday night, almost time for fairytales to end. But there raced Caitlin Clark along the baseline, flawlessly dribbling the basketball, about to stun the women’s college basketball world as it has rarely been stunned with at least a little help from her Iowa teammates.
Three seconds to dethrone defending national champ and undefeated South Carolina. Another dribble and two seconds, then one second. Finally, the horn about to sound, Clark tossed the ball skyward with two hands, a satisfied smile crossing her narrow face for the first time all night.
Iowa 77, South Carolina 73.
An ESPN television announcer, mindful that Clark had just scored 41 points for the second straight game in this tournament, shouted: “The mythical mastery of Caitlin Clark continues.”
Does it ever!
Full disclosure: I don’t watch a lot of women’s college hoops. Nothing against it, but as often as I’ve put the rest of my life on hold the past 55 years or so to keep up with the men’s game, I’d be unemployed and on the street if I similarly followed the women.
But at 3:30 Sunday afternoon, the Good Lord willing, I’ll be glued to the ABC network watching Clark and the Hawkeyes attempt to defeat LSU for the NCAA championship. And I’ll be there mostly to watch Clark.
Think Steph Curry with a long ponytail and you have a general picture of Clark with the ball in her hands. She bobs and weaves. Drives and penetrates. Passes to teammates through the tiniest of holes. Long passes, short passes, bounce passes, skip passes. Always perfect.
But it’s the shooting that makes her special in the same way that Curry is special, or Larry Bird was special, or Damian Lillard is special. She can beat you off the dribble for a layup. Or beat you from 10 feet. Or beat you from 30, the ball softly and sweetly finding nothing but the bottom of the net, as it did late Friday, when her dagger from that distance all but guaranteed victory.
Consider this: Friday’s 41-point, 8-assist, 6-rebound performance against the No. 3 defense in the women’s college game was only her second-best statistical performance of the tournament. In order to get her teammates to the Final Four, Clark also scored 41 while adding 10 rebounds and 12 assists for a mind-blowing triple-double in the Hawkeyes’ Elite Eight win over Louisville.
No wonder South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said this of Clark before Friday’s game: “(The Gamecocks) all want a chance to guard her. It's going to take all of them probably and more to guard Caitlin. She is someone that is unpredictable, like she'll be able to pivot and take and make incredible shots, both from outside, way outside the three, to at the rim. So we got to show her different looks in order for us to hopefully keep her somewhat under control.”
Afterward, Staley said: “She was everything that we saw on film. She was everything, like assists, points, turnovers, all of them. She ran the gamut of who she is as a player, and she threaded the needle.”
Need more proof of her brilliance, or at least one reason why this women’s tournament is breaking television ratings records for the sport?
Try this: Those 41 points Clark scored against the Gamecocks? In South Carolina’s first three tournament wins it surrendered an average of 42.5 ppg to the opposing team.
Or this: Clark has now scored 161 points and dished out 52 assists in this NCAA tourney. Since 2000, according to ESPN, it’s one of six instances of a player recording 150 points and 50 assists in ANY 5-game span. All six of those belong to Clark.
“She doesn't really surprise me anymore,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder in Saturday morning’s earliest minutes. “I think she's the most phenomenal basketball player in America. I just don't think there's anybody like her. In so many regards, not only scoring, but passing the ball, handling the ball. And then it's her mentality. I think that's what's so special. She believes in herself. She believes in her teammates. She said when we were recruiting her, ‘I want to get to a Final Four,’ and it takes one person to believe it”
Clark may be the obvious reason and by far the biggest reason the Hawkeyes could win their first-ever NCAA title on Sunday, but a far less known reason can be found in a one-sided loss at Maryland on February 21.
Trounced 96-68 that night thanks partly to a defensive scheme developed by Terrapins coach Brenda Frese, Iowa looked like anything but a team capable of making a memorable tourney run in March.
But thanks to that strategy, when Louisville attempted the same scheme in the Elite Eight, Iowa and Clark were ready.
Said Bluder of that dynamic: “Brenda did a great job of having a defense we hadn’t seen. Louisville tried it, and now we were ready for it. So I thank her. If it wasn’t for that, we might not have been ready for that down the line.”
The line ends inside Dallas’s American Airlines Center Sunday afternoon. That’s the last time we’ll get to watch the mythical mastery of Caitlin Clark on this magic carpet ride of a tournament run.
So do yourself a favor and tune in. Watch this heavenly yet humble talent from Des Moines, Iowa, play the game as perhaps no woman not named Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Sheryl Swoopes or Diana Traurasi has ever played it.
And should she win it all against LSU, look for her to say something as unpretentious as what she said after the South Carolina win, when she observed: “All you need is a belief in one another, a confidence in one another. We just do it for the person to our left and our right."
If she does enough to make the Hawkeyes the queens of women’s college hoops for the first time ever, Steph Curry may just start being referred to as the Caitlin Clark of the NBA.
* * *
You can reach Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com