Analysis: Caitlin Clark loses, but women’s basketball wins with emergence of a new superstar

Don’t be fooled by the final score or the fact that Connecticut mostly dominated, a March tradition unlike any other. Women’s basketball won on Saturday, and it’s because of Caitlin Clark and Iowa, even if the Hawkeyes lost the Sweet 16 marquee matchup 92-72.

Clark, the freshman phenom, scored 21 points in the loss. It’s probably the hardest she’s had to work all season: The Huskies were physical from the jump, bodying her during every cut and drive, making sure she never got even a sliver of space. Clark shot just 7-of-21 for the game. After scoring 12 points in the third quarter she didn’t score again until less than a minute remaining, as UConn closed out the Hawkeyes and moved on to its 15th consecutive Elite Eight.

And yet, I’m sure that after watching Clark play Saturday, little girls all over the country are begging their parents for a No. 22 Iowa jersey.

Clark, who is from West Des Moines, grew up in a state that adores women’s basketball. Both the Hawkeyes and in-state rival Iowa State are regulars in the NCAA Tournament. When it came time to pick a college, the sweet-shooting Clark, who has tremendous court vision, easily could have chosen a women’s basketball blue blood; Notre Dame was reportedly in her final five. But she picked Iowa — which had recently graduated a national player of the year in Megan Gustafson — because it was “a great opportunity to do something special.”

Iowa hasn’t been to a Women’s Final Four since 1993. Clark wants to be the one to take it back. And she’s still got plenty of time to do it — four more years, in fact, because everyone gained a season of eligibility this year because of the pandemic. What will be even better, though, is if other top prospects follow in Clark’s footsteps and try to help the school in their backyard get to its own Final Four.

UConn, one of the most dominant programs in college sports history, is always going to have a top recruit, or two or three, on its roster. This season it was Big East player of the year and freshman of the year Paige Bueckers, the other main draw in the UConn-Iowa matchup. Next year Bueckers will be joined in Storrs by Azzi Fudd, the top recruit in the 2021 class. Caroline Ducharme, the No. 5 player in the ’21 class, also will be there. The Huskies also have a commitment from the No. 5 player in the ’22 class, Isuneh Brady.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, right, is fouled by UConn forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa (20) as she tires to score during the second half.

But players like Clark, who can lift a program to new heights, are becoming more common in women’s basketball — and more and more, they’re deciding to go somewhere besides the traditional powers.

Kelsey Plum, the all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball, picked Washington because she wanted to take the Huskies to their first Final Four — and she did exactly that in 2016. A’ja Wilson chose South Carolina over powerhouses UConn and Tennessee, and led the Gamecocks to the 2017 national championship. Sabrina Ionescu went to Oregon, shattered the NCAA triple-double record and became a household name.

With every game televised for the first time this postseason — as opposed to ESPN’s “whip around” coverage, which often leaves you with whip lash — and a handful broadcast on ABC, more people are being exposed every year to women’s basketball, which is consistently being played at a high level. Saturday, Iowa and UConn combined for 48 assists, and UConn’s Evina Westbrook (17 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds) was one board shy of a triple-double.

People tuning in for the first, second or hundredth time are seeing the emergence of a new generation of players, young women who can drain threes from well beyond the arc, love the pick-and-pop and are starting to dunk with regularity.

“This has been wonderful, all the games being televised,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. “This is good for our game, this is what we need to grow. This is what we’ve been missing — people need to see what we’re able to do.”

Clark hopes she’s just the beginning of a wave of talent that picks the non-obvious school.

“I know a lot of little girls dream about going to those blue bloods,” Clark said. “But playing for your home state is special, creating something new is special.”

She added, “I know I’m in the right place.”

Maybe going forward, all the little girls watching Clark will find their right place, too — and it won’t be at a blue blood, either.

If we get more of that, not only will we get more hyped matchups like we did with UConn-Iowa, but we’ll start to see the underdog win more of those games. Upsets and chaos will grow the game, helping put more and different programs on the map. And that’s what March is all about.

Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell

 

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