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All eyes on Caitlin Clark entering national championship game

After Caitlin Clark’s incredible Elite Eight and Final Four, she is the main storyline entering the NCAAW Tournament championship game between her Iowa Hawkeyes and the LSU Tigers.

South Carolina v Iowa
Caitlin Clark
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Last year, a round before where we are now, I wrote about Paige Bueckers having “the Jordanesque, Bryantesque killer instinct in the Elite Eight.” At the time, Bueckers was two wins away from capping a phenomenal individual tournament with a championship that would immortalize her efforts.

Bueckers would not go on to win the national championship, so we know the legacy of Caitlin Clark’s 2023 tournament is still hanging in the balance — Iowa winning it all would place Clark’s performances in the Elite Eight and Final Four in an even higher air — but it is already unforgettable.

Clark opened the tournament with 26 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists against SE Louisiana. She had her most efficient game of the tourney from the field (9-of-14) and was 3-of-6 from downtown. In the second round, perhaps still spooked by last year’s second-round disappointment, she put up her weakest performance, yet for her that still meant 22 points, 12 assists and three steals. The 22 points marks a tournament low, as does her 35.3 percent shooting from the floor in that game (6-of-17).

Clark broke 30 points for the first time in the tournament in the Sweet Sixteen, going for 31 and eight helpers. She shot 11-of-22 from the field and 4-of-9 from distance.

Then came the epic Elite Eight game. Clark made a personal-2023-tournament-high eight threes at a 57.1 percent clip and also went to the line more frequently than she did in any other tourney game, finishing 11-of-13 at the stripe. When the dust settled on a 97-83 win over Louisville, she had 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists for the first 30-point triple-double in NCAAW Tournament history.

Perhaps an even more historically significant performance, given the opponent, came in the Final Four. Clark’s Hawkeyes took down a South Carolina team that was picked to win it all in 42.8 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets. Her signature stretch came when she made threes at 8:52 and 7:26 remaining to make it 62-60 Iowa and 67-62 Iowa, respectively. The second of those was a deep, straightaway trey that won’t soon be forgotten in Hawkeye lore.

Iowa led the rest of the way, with Clark icing the game by making 4-of-4 free throws after McKenna Warnock’s now-famous offensive rebound. Clark scored the Hawkeyes’ final 13 points and 16 of their 18 in the fourth quarter. She assisted Monika Czinano on the only other basket.

Bueckers and Aliyah Boston have been great in recent years. But what many of us are starting to realize is that Clark has a better chance than either to be a crossover star in men’s basketball circles. Offense sells tickets and Clark’s skillset on that side of the ball is simply electrifying. She always had all the tools to put up these types of performances on the biggest stage; it was just a matter of if she would rise to the occasion.

Clark was the No. 4 Hoop Gurlz recruit in 2020, behind Bueckers, her opponent in the 2023 national championship game Angel Reese and Cameron Brink.

Here’s what I had to say about her coming out of high school:

Clark is a lethal 3-point shooter and likes to take pull-up midrange shots as well. She is a good passer — though she will look to score first — and she is solid in other areas. After Hawkeye all-time great Megan Gustafson left in 2019, many thought the team would struggle without her. But Iowa played well in 2019-20 and Clark could help them continue to build a powerful program.

Here’s the video I based that assessment on:

Even earlier than mid-season of her freshman year of college, it was clear we had all underestimated Clark, as the national conversation had become all about her and Bueckers. Somehow, Bueckers was the unquestioned National Player of the Year despite Clark putting up gaudier stats in a Power 5 conference.

Clark exceeded expectations as an individual during the regular season and allowed Iowa to slightly exceed expectations in the NCAA Tournament, as the No. 5 seed Hawkeyes advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. To get there, they convincingly defeated Kentucky, with Clark outplaying Wildcat superstar Rhyne Howard, a junior whose experience and strength advantages should have been more of a problem for Clark.

The Sweet Sixteen seemed satisfying in 2021, but we knew a player as good as Clark would eventually need a national championship to live up to her own greatness. She will always have a second-round exit as a No. 2 seed on her resume, but her class in handling that disappointment and her resilience to keep working are a part of her legacy as well.

It’s amazing how drastically the resume has changed over the course of the last two games. From second round, Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight appearances to second round, Sweet Sixteen and national championship game appearances with two of the greatest performances in the history of March Madness to boot.

I wouldn’t call Iowa an overwhelming favorite against LSU, but Clark is the best player in the country and the Hawkeyes did just beat a team that was an overwhelming favorite to many, though not to me. So Iowa will be the favorite to some degree, and if Clark can deliver the national championship, her awe-inspiring 2023 tournament run will reach its goosebump-inducing ending.

Check out this January 2022 feature on Clark, written by Swish Appeal’s Iowa beat writer Zachary Draves: