Leistikow: An unforgettable scene at Carver-Hawkeye, this time with a Big Ten trophy

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Just before Sunday’s de facto Big Ten women’s basketball championship game, Caitlin Clark and Gabbie Marshall exchanged a moment of disbelief as they saw 15,056 screaming Hawkeye fans surrounding them.

“I have the chills,” Clark told Marshall.

“I could not stop smiling,” Marshall would say later.

What followed was a constant show of more emotions, both on the court and in the stands, in an unforgettable scene that ended with Lisa Bluder cutting the final strand of net to punctuate a conference title.

“When we came here 22 years ago, we dreamed about a sold-out arena,” Bluder said following No. 22 Iowa’s 104-80 thrashing of fifth-ranked Michigan, giving the Hawkeyes a co-championship with Ohio State. “Today, you couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

On the court: Clark’s theatrics and mind-blowing 3-pointers — each one seemingly more daring than the last — on her way to what she conceded was probably the best game of her Iowa career: 38 points, six rebounds and 11 assists … without taking a fourth-quarter shot. Most of the game’s final 10 minutes saw Clark whipping perfect passes to awaiting teammates, who delivered 3-pointers with precision, to help pad an Iowa lead that had the crowd going wild.

The Hawkeye women last won a Big Ten regular-season title in 2008, but they clinched it on the road back then.

“I’ve played a lot of basketball games in my life,” Clark said after her 14th double-double of the season, “and that was by far the most fun.”

In the stands: The incredible crowd, which showed up early and screamed often.

“No words to explain how that feels and how much energy the crowd gives you," Marshall said. "It’s crazy.”

More:Caitlin Clark propels Iowa women's basketball to win over Michigan, share of Big Ten regular-season title

The whole scene was a fitting and powerful tribute to the late Christine Grant, who passed away after health battles on Dec. 31 at age 85. The Title IX trailblazer was a dear friend and role model to Bluder.

“I’m wearing my tennis shoes in honor of her … because she told me I needed to wear sensible shoes,” Bluder said to laughs.

Grant, the former Iowa women’s athletics director, had the vision to hire C. Vivian Stringer in 1983, a genius and bold move that made women’s basketball a big deal in Iowa City. Two years later, Grant helped blast open the doors of Carver-Hawkeye in a 1985 game that saw 22,157 fans pour into the arena — she later got scolded by fire marshals.

I attended that game with my parents and younger sisters. Even at age 11, I could sense that it was a significant moment. But something about that game and Sunday’s game were markedly different. Iowa lost to Ohio State back then.

On this day, against the nation’s fifth-ranked program with a championship on the line, the Hawkeyes rewarded the first sold-out women's crowd at Carver-Hawkeye since 1988.

The Hawkeyes got into a 23-12 hole.

Absolutely, there were nerves for the home team after those pregame chills.

“Maybe we were a little tight to start the game,” Clark said.

But Iowa scored eight points in the final 1:04 of the first quarter. Marshall flung home an improbable 3-pointer at the buzzer, and despite everything that had seemingly gone wrong … Iowa was down only 25-20.

After that, it was all Iowa. And all Clark.

She made eight 3-pointers from, truly, an average of about 30 feet away from the rim. She missed only three.

In two games against Michigan this year, Clark’s stat line: 84 points, 21 assists and roughly seven “from the logo” 3-pointers, give or take.

“Once my first 3 went down … that’s nice,” Clark said. “You just keep shooting it and shooting it.”

National player of the year?

She finished her regular season leading Division I in scoring (27.5 points per game) and assists (8.3) and also leads the Hawkeyes with 7.1 rebounds a game from the point-guard position. She changes the math and the game, as she did Sunday.

“We have great people around Caitlin. We have great basketball players,” Bluder said. “We don’t have 10 all-Americans, though, like some people do. There is a difference.”

A national ESPN2 audience was watching. Clark’s name was trending on Twitter more than two hours after the game.

Surely the folks who put together the NCAA Tournament bracket were taking good notes.

Kate Martin, assistant coach Raina Harmon and Caitlin Clark pose for a photo after Sunday's win.

Iowa was a projected No. 5 NCAA seed before Sunday’s game. But after a third top-10 victory in nine days … and clinching a Big Ten regular-season championship for the first time since 2008 … with a generational talent like Clark … the NCAA folks would be crazy to keep Iowa outside the No. 4 line, which is the cutoff for hosting first- and second-round tournament games.

Still, the Hawkeyes (20-8 overall, 14-4 Big Ten) would do well to make a run at this week's Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. They will be the No. 2 seed, having lost the tiebreaker to Ohio State. One win (probably against always-tricky Northwestern, the No. 7 seed, on Friday night) would make them feel better about hosting NCAA games.

A rematch with No. 3 seed Michigan could await in the Big Ten semifinals.

“Why not win two Big Ten titles?” Clark said. “Obviously, this is when you want to be playing your best basketball, and we’re playing our best basketball. If we can get home-court advantage for the NCAA Tournament, that’s huge. To get to do that again would be a lot of fun.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.