Caitlin Clark Once Again Delivers for Women’s Basketball

I’m lucky I didn’t hurt my neck. 

Seriously. Every time I watch Clark, it seems, she hits a series of three-point shots that make me—and it’s safe to presume, many other people—sharply tilt our head upwards, to look at the high heavens, wondering how she just did that. And I found myself putting extra pressure on those neck muscles and upper spine and all sorts of vulnerable body parts during Iowa’s 94-87 victory over LSU in their Elite Eight matchup of the NCAA tournament in Albany on Monday night.

Clark converted nine three-point shots—nine!—one seemingly deeper and more improbable than the next, tying the NCAA tournament record for most 3-pointers in a game along the way to leading the Hawkeyes to their second straight Final Four, and avenging their much-discussed national championship loss at the hands of LSU and its star player, Reese, a year ago. During the game Clark, already the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division 1 history, regardless of gender, set new women’s records for most Division 1 3-pointers in a career, most 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament, and most assists recorded in the NCAA tournament. She’s now the first player in NCAA tournament history with three 40-point games.

Clark quite simply delivered, as per usual, for the ascendant sport of women’s basketball, turning in a dream stat line—41 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds—in a dream rematch of last year’s final. Expect viewership for this game to shatter some sort of record. After all, the second round of this year’s women’s March Madness tournament across ESPN platforms averaged 1.4 million viewers, last year’s viewership. As of Monday night, the cheapest seat for the men’s Final Four in the Phoenix area was selling for $360, according to Vivid Seats. With Clark now headed to Cleveland for the women’s Final Four, the cheapest ticket was for $526. 

This regional final was buzzing because of what unfolded last March. LSU beat Iowa 102-85. In that game and near the end of the contest, Reese threw some of Clark’s famous trash talk back in her face. She pointed at her ring finger, for example, while looking in Clark’s direction, as if to say, “I’m about to get the most important piece of hardware—that championship ring—and you’re not.” Reese faced an ugly and unnecessary backlash from some quarters—Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports, for example, called Reese “classless” Clark made nothing of it, saying she had “no idea” Reese was taunting her. “All you can do is hold your head high, be proud of what you did, and all the credit in the world to LSU,” Clark said afterwards. “They were tremendous, they deserve it.”

That didn’t stop a furor from ensuing, especially online, where users dug in their heels, took sides, and screamed about the incident for about a week. Many seemed to carry their animosity for LSU into this season. A  Los Angeles Times column last week called the Tigers “dirty debutantes” and “villains.” The outlet updated the column to remove the offensive language, and the writer apologized.

The rematch storyline will be responsible for the inevitable record viewership number for a regional final. Both Clark and Reese lived up to their stellar basketball reputations. While Clark got Iowa going early, she really came through in the third quarter, breaking a 45-45 tie 11 seconds in the half with a made three: she finished the stanza with four 3-pointers, giving Iowa an 11-point edge going into the fourth quarter that the Hawkeyes wouldn’t relinquish. Reese hit 6 of her first 8 shots of the game, but she left for a brief time in the second quarter after tweaking her ankle while defending Clark. She still filled-up the stat sheet, finishing the game with 17 points, 20 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. She fouled out near the end, on a charging call that was close. But at the end of the day, she lowered her shoulder, the ref called it how she saw it, and Reese’s disqualification sealed the deal for Iowa.

After the game, Clark and Reese shared a classy moment on the handshake line: there was no taunting, no histrionics, just two stars and competitors acknowledging each other’s greatness. No surprise there: both Reese and Clark have been insisting, for the past 12 months, that there was no bad blood between them. LSU goes home this season, but has much to look forward to: even if Reese, like Clark, forgoes her final year of NCAA eligibility to enter the WNBA, the Tigers have plenty of talent coming back. Sophomore Flau’jae Johnson, in particular, can drive to the basket with ease. (She’s also a burgeoning hip-hop star who’s already signed a deal with Jay Z’s label, Roc Nation.) LSU, already a champion, will be fine.

And Clark, the biggest star on the college stage, can play another weekend for Iowa. Extracurricular activities, like a strained debate about the appropriateness of trash talking, can now take a back seat for women’s basketball. The Final Four in Cleveland is set. South Carolina takes its perfect 36-0 record into one national semifinal, against North Carolina State. Iowa and Clark meet UConn, the game’s dynastic power. The matchups are alluring. Women’s basketball is having an unrivaled moment. And it’s only going to get better.