Leistikow: Final Four, Naismith Trophy add to legacy for Iowa's Caitlin Clark, 'one of the greats of all-time'

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

SEATTLE − After the final horn sounded in Seattle to seal Iowa’s 97-83, Final Four-clinching win against Louisville on Sunday night, Caitlin Clark had one more assist yet to create.

The 21-year-old superstar collected the game ball – the one she wielded to deliver 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for two spectacular hours at Climate Pledge Arena – and tossed it to her father, Brent, in the stands.

“I hope they got out of the arena in time, so the NCAA can't chase him down,” Clark quipped afterward. “But I told him to run. I'll get it later at the hotel.”

Indeed, the Wilson ball made it onto a plane and back to the Clarks’ home in West Des Moines while she and the Hawkeyes headed straight to Dallas to prepare for Friday’s national semifinal game against top-ranked South Carolina.

Wherever the ball ends up, it’ll be quite the conversation piece. Because that ball will serve as a reminder of the Final Four that Clark publicly dreamed about when she committed to Iowa … and how she made that dream a reality in sensational fashion to lead her home-state Hawkeyes to the Final Four.

Head coach Lisa Bluder cringed when she read Clark’s comments in the newspaper as a Dowling Catholic senior and Hawkeye freshman, stating her desire to get Iowa to its second-ever Final Four and first in 30 years.

Give Clark immense credit: She called her shot.

Caitlin Clark's legacy in women's basketball took an epic step forward Sunday with a show-stopping, historic triple-double in a 97-83 win against Louisville.

“About the only people that believed were me and (Bluder) when I first committed to her,” Clark said. “And it was getting the locker room to believe and then everybody in the locker room believed. And the rest is kind of history.”

For the Iowa junior, Sunday was a legacy game.

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

She insisted she never thought for a second that the Hawkeyes might lose against Louisville, but if they had … maybe the national narrative would have begun to stick that Clark couldn’t elevate her team enough to win on the biggest stage. Last year’s second-round exit against Creighton, when Clark went 4-for-19 from the floor, hovered for 12 months.

“She wanted this game. She wanted to do it for coach Bluder especially,” teammate Gabbie Marshall said. “It just adds to her legacy. It’s just one more thing she needed to be the best player in the country.”

Her Iowa legacy is already secure. What about nationally?

On Wednesday in Dallas, Clark was presented with the Naismith Trophy as the top player in women's basketball for 2023.

Clark has 984 points, the sixth-most in a season by any player in Division I women’s history. At No. 5 is Megan Gustafson, who scored a Big Ten Conference-record 1,001 for Bluder’s Hawkeyes in 2019.

Her 127 3-pointers made are two shy of the Big Ten record of 129 set by Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell in 2018. With four more 3s, she would tie the most ever by a woman from a power conference (131) by Oklahoma’s Taylor Robertson in 2020.

Her 311 assists are a nation-leading total and a school record. Further, she is the first player in D-I women’s history to record 900 points and 300 assists in the same season.

What is most impressive about some of those numbers, though, is what she’s done in Iowa’s biggest games on the biggest stages.

Regular-season finale against second-ranked Indiana? Clark’s walk-off, off-balance 3-pointer with only a second to collect and deliver an unforgettable 86-85 win before a sellout crowd in Iowa City.

One Sunday later in the Big Ten Tournament final against Ohio State? A 30-point, 17-assist, 10-rebound triple-double as Iowa demolished the Buckeyes, 105-73, assuring back-to-back tournament titles and ultimately earning Iowa the highest No. 2 seed in the NCAA bracket reveal.

And then came another Sunday best from Clark in the 98th and biggest game of her Iowa career. Her 41 points against the Cardinals tied for the third-most by any player in Elite Eight history and are an NCAA Tournament record for Iowa (as were her eight 3-pointers).

More:How to watch, stream and listen to Iowa women's basketball in the NCAA Final Four

“It's funny, because the better the opponent, almost the better she plays,” Bluder said. “It's like she locks in on those, when we're playing against top-25 teams. That's when her statistics even go up even more, against great opponents.”

What Clark has put together will go down as one of the greatest single seasons in NCAA women’s history.

But as soon as next year, the conversations could begin to grow about Clark breaking career NCAA records.

More:How good is Iowa's Caitlin Clark? Here are 15 stats that put her dominance in perspective.

Already tied for the fastest to reach 2,000 career points (in her 75th game), Clark heads to the Final Four with 2,646 points − 799 as a freshman in a COVID-19 abbreviated year, 863 as a sophomore and 984 as a junior. That puts her within 882 points of topping the all-time D-I scoring record of 3,527 points by Washington’s Kelsey Plum (whose career ended in 2017).

Clark, of course, would need optimal health to get there next year, but she also has the option of returning to Iowa for a fifth season in 2024-25, due to her freshman season not counting against her eligibility amid global pandemic conditions. The possibility exists that Clark could blow past 4,000 points for her college career and set records that may never be topped. With 782 assists (7.98 career average per game), Clark would need to play 66 more games at that pace to track down all-time NCAA leader Suzie McConnell of Penn State (1,307).

Growing fame among fans, TV viewers … and now a showdown with South Carolina

Clark’s legacy is undeniably continuing to grow in the category of eyeballs. Iowa set a Big Ten record for home attendance this season, averaging 11,143 fans per game. Opposing arenas, including at Nebraska and Indiana, set single-game attendance records when Iowa was in town. Big Ten Tournament attendance records were set in Minneapolis, with Clark taking center stage. Climate Pledge Arena drew 11,700 fans – an estimated 75% of them Hawkeye backers – for Sunday’s regional final to create a raucous environment for women’s basketball in a game where the competing teams were playing a combined 4,100 miles from Seattle.

Clark has hordes of young fans after every game, home and away, seeking a chance to meet her or secure her autograph.

“She’s my best friend. She’s also like a celebrity,” star teammate Monika Czinano said. “It’s such a weird thing to process.”

More:How much are ticket prices, flights for Iowa's Final Four game in Dallas?

Sunday’s win over Louisville ratcheted up Clark’s fame even more. She was the talk of “SportsCenter” after the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA Tournament history. The women’s Final Four arguably has the two most recognizable names in college basketball in Clark and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (the 2022 Naismith winner) compared with the pedestrian men’s Final Four of San Diego State, FAU, Miami of Florida and UConn.

Last year’s women’s title game, won by South Carolina over UConn, drew 4.85 million viewers, ESPN’s most-watched college basketball game (men or women) since 2008. This year, Iowa’s NCAA matchup vs. Georgia drew 1.46 million viewers on ABC, the most ever for a second-round matchup in the women’s game. Iowa-Louisville on Sunday drew 2.5 million viewers, the highest-ever recorded Elite Eight game, with peak viewership of 2.7 million.

Friday’s 8:30 p.m. CT Iowa-South Carolina matchup on ESPN could very well challenge viewership records. And for the first time amid surging women's basketball TV ratings (up 42% over last year's NCAA Tournament, per ESPN), the NCAA title game will air on broadcast television (2:30 p.m. CT Sunday on ABC).

All of this attention comes at a time when the annual broadcast rights for women’s college basketball are coming up for re-negotiation. ESPN is currently paying $34 million annually for its championships package, but industry estimates suggest that number could rise past $100 million starting with the 2024-25 season.

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

Clark has long stated she wants to grow the women’s game. Thanks in part to her March Madness surge, her growing celebrity and fantastic media presence, she’s doing just that.

“I play this game because I love it,” Clark said. “And it brings joy to me, and it brings a lot of joy to other people, because our team is so fun to watch.”

Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen, who as a player averaged nearly 30 points a game as a senior at Drake, has seen a lot of basketball in her time. Given the Final Four shot Clark called and delivered, Jensen feels Sunday’s win against Louisville cemented her place in history.

Said Jensen: “She’s one of the greats of all-time.”

More:Iowa's Caitlin Clark has an impressive list of NIL deals. From Bose to Nike, here's a look.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.