Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark knew this moment was hers, and she wasn't going to miss

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

SEATTLE — Her pregame vibe hardly matched the moment’s magnitude, and Caitlin Clark wanted it that way. There were no nerves, no second thoughts, no running from the scene she spent years manifesting.

“This was probably the most calm I’ve been before a basketball game in my life,” Clark said.

And it showed.

From the time her name rolled off the PA announcer’s tongue during pregame intros, to the celebratory hug with associate head coach Jan Jensen upon exiting the Climate Pledge Arena floor one last time, Clark ruled the court in ways almost never imagined. For a player who’s spent three seasons at Iowa dropping jaws around the world, this was her most magnificent showing of all.

It’s borderline unfathomable how much Clark has normalized staggering stat lines, another one produced Sunday as she guided the No. 2 seed Hawkeyes to their first Final Four in 30 years with a 41-point triple-double against No. 5 seed Louisville. Iowa won 97-83.

It was a magical display of basketball excellence. When the Hawkeyes needed a stabilizing bucket, Clark swooped in and reassured everyone that Iowa wasn’t going to lose this game.

Iowa's Caitlin Clark holds her hand to her ear to fire up the pro-Iowa crowd during Sunday's Elite Eight game in Seattle. The Hawkeyes won 97-83 to advance to the Final Four.

“Everybody knows this means so much to her,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Not that it doesn't mean a lot to all of 'em, but they all know that. And it takes one person to dream it, right? And if you can get other people to follow in line — and that's what this team has done — but Caitlin was the one.”

For as lopsided as the final score finished, Iowa needed Clark to be "the one" right out of the gate. When Louisville bolted out of the gates with the game’s first eight points, there was Clark to calmly stabilize things before anyone could become rattled. A personal 7-0 run followed in 49 seconds — igniting a 15-point, four-assist quarter that saw Clark score or assist on every Iowa basket.

More:Leistikow: Caitlin Clark delivers historic triple-double to lead Iowa women to Final Four

It’s more than the amazing drives and fearless treys, though. The confidence Clark exudes and has been projecting for some time allows those around her to soak up that same energy no matter the scenario.

The 3-pointers Clark launched from absurd spots Sunday will dominate the highlight tape, and understandably so. She did hit eight of them after all, as many as Louisville’s entire team. But it’s the subtle leadership signs that resonate with her teammates just as much as the production does.

It’s the “We’re OK” Clark says to her veteran group anytime Louisville even slightly dented Iowa’s cushion. It’s the reassurance she provides to Hannah Stuelke before the freshman steps to the free-throw line, trying to put the finishing touches on this monumental victory. It’s the “You’re good” to Gabbie Marshall to start the second half, after Iowa’s sharpshooter had multiple 3-point attempts go around the rim and out. All Marshall did to reciprocate that confidence was deliver 14 second-half points while draining three treys.

“She’s what makes us go,” Marshall said. "As she goes, we go. Just knowing she has the confidence in me to keep shooting, she says every game to shoot it whenever I’m ready. I can’t do anything but be ready to shoot. She knows exactly where I’ll be.

“That’s really important for her as the leader of this team to instill that confidence, not just in me but in everybody.”   

Reaching this pinnacle point hasn’t come without important tribulations along the way. The veteran nucleus of Clark, Marshall, Monika Czinano, Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock, who Sunday started their 90th game together, needed to go through the expectation-establishing 2021 season to set the table for this. They had to experience last season’s Creighton pain to fully understand the emotional swings of March. Weaving in two Big Ten Tournament celebrations offered a taste of excitement while motivating for more.

More:What sports world is saying about Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark's historic Elite Eight game

Those experiences along with countless others have delivered their worth during this thrilling Final Four run. What’s been endured to get here is a monumental reason why no anxiety existed ahead of Clark’s career-defining opportunity.    

“It takes a lot of work,” Clark said. “I work with people about my mental toughness all the time — what’s going on up in my head. I have the skill and talent to do a lot of incredible things on the court, but it’s right here in your head that’s going to do a lot of things for your team, for you individually.

“When things don’t go your way, how are you going to respond? I think honestly, that’s been the difference for me this year. I’ve put up the same stats. I’ve done all the same stuff. It’s right here (in my mind) that’s changed. That’s the biggest growth I had to take for this team to get to where we are right now.”

After swishing home two free throws with 22 seconds remaining for her final points of the night, Clark crouched down at the charity stripe with a wide smile and whipped her eyes around the extraordinary scene she had just created. The emotions hit all at once just a few seconds later as Clark checked out and trotted to the bench, her teammates beaming ear to ear as if they, too, had just scored the most points in NCAA Tournament triple-double history. Clark didn’t want it any other way.

More:Leistikow: Why Iowa's Final Four-clinching victory was packed with emotion

She knew she was supposed to be here, taking this program on a journey only few believed was possible. With Clark at the controls, this opportunity never had a chance to overwhelm.

“Everybody in the locker room believed,” Clark said, “and the rest is kind of history.”

Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Email him at