Caitlin Clark’s Legacy Remains Untarnished Despite Championship Loss

After South Carolina had the game well in hand on Sunday and was about to win its second national championship in three seasons and finish off the 10th undefeated season in the history of women’s college basketball, the ESPN on ABC cameras panned to Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who was leaving the court for the last time as an NCAA player. She had just been subbed out and the Hawkeye-heavy crowd in Cleveland offered her a proper round of applause. The TV screen pointed out the multiple records she set as a collegian: the all-time leading scorer in NCAA D1 history, regardless of gender, most points in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, a few others.

South Carolina, which beat Iowa 87-75, had plenty to be proud of. The Gamecocks’ record over the past three seasons is an incredible 108-3. That’s not a typo.

But during the team’s on-court celebration, coach Dawn Staley—whose defensive adjustments and lineup tweaks after a hot Iowa start slowed down Clark and the Hawkeye attack—saw fit to give Clark quite a shout-out.

“I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport,” said Staley. “She carried a heavy load for our sport… She’s gonna lift that league [WNBA] up… You are one of the GOATs of our game and we appreciate you.”

The last time a national-championship coach was so effusive, by name, about the other team’s star so soon after the buzzer? I’m going to go with never.

That’s the Caitlin Clark effect. Even in defeat, she’s the center of attention. Because Staley’s correct: She’s lifted the women’s game to new heights. To wit: Iowa’s 71-69 win against UConn in Friday’s NCAA Final Four game the most in women’s-college-basketball history. The game, which peaked at 17 million viewers, drew a bigger audience than every World Series and NBA Finals game in 2023. It was the most-viewed basketball game in ESPN history, beating Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics.

Iowa-UConn beat a women’s college viewership record set just days earlier, when Iowa’s win over LSU in the Elite Eight drew an audience of 12.3 million. This Iowa-South Carolina audience could be even higher.

Clark was must-see TV. She converted one of her three-pointers on Sunday, during her 18-point first-quarter outburst, from near the half-court logo. Her passing up court is sublime. At times on Sunday, her Iowa teammates couldn’t seem to handle some of her needle-threads on fast breaks.

That won’t happen as much in the pros.

Following Clark’s scorching start, South Carolina adjusted. The Gamecocks made more of an effort to key in on her. South Carolina proved just too big for the Hawkeyes. South Carolina’s 6 ft. 7 in. senior center who grew up in Brazil, simply towered over Iowa’s frontcourt players, and finished with 15 points, 17 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Freshman Tessa Johnson found a hot hand off the bench, hitting a pair of three-pointers in the third quarter that gave the Gamecocks a bit of a cushion.

The Gamecocks will be remembered as outstanding champions. Clark leaves college without a title, having lost in the championship game these past two seasons. South Carolina forced her into 10 for 28 shooting. She finished with 30 points. Every shot seemed to be contested. The ones Clark did hit—the near-logo shot, a first-quarter three over a very outstretched Cardoso, a few in close with defenders all over her—were impressive.

Clark can look forward now. The Indiana Fever will take her with the first pick overall in the 2024 draft. A Clark The Las Vegas Aces, the two-time defending champs, have already announced that they’ll move their July 2 home game against the Fever from their 12,000-seat home arena to an 18,000-seat one used by the city’s NHL team. The WNBA is on the upswing: the 2023 season was the most watched in 21 years. Viewership rose 21% year-over-year across ABC, CBS, and the ESPN networks.

Clark is all but guaranteed to keep that momentum going.

South Carolina showed she’s human. Shout-out to Raven Johnson, the South Carolina sophomore guard who shot 1-11 for the game but hounded Clark all night. Johnson offered a blueprint on how to stop Clark. The WNBA is surely watching.

Clark will take her licks in the pros. But right now, let’s make like the classy Dawn Staley, acknowledge Caitlin Clark’s influence, and never forget what she’s done.