Caitlin Clark set out to turn Iowa into a winner. She redefined women’s college hoops along the way

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CLEVELAND — Caitlin Clark doesn’t want to think about. Or doesn’t want to talk about it. That will come later. Probably much later.

Yes, the Iowa star sees the packed stands. Hears the pop in the crowd whenever she drops in another 3-pointer from the logo. Senses the throng of media around her. Doesn’t need to be reminded that her name has been trending pretty much everywhere over four months that have transformed her life and, in some ways, her sport.

The reality is the leading all-time scorer in NCAA Division I history envisioned some of this. A year ago after a painful loss to LSU in the national title game, Clark’s lone focus was finding a way back.

One paradigm-shifting season later, that moment is here. Clark will walk onto the floor at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Sunday afternoon with a chance to check off one final box on her otherwise glittering resume when the Hawkeyes face unbeaten South Carolina in the last game of her singular collegiate career.

It’s a lot to think about. Yet Clark is adamant that regardless of the result, she doesn’t want the scoreboard to define her. Yes, she’s focused on winning, but the 22-year-old says what has happened over the last four seasons goes far beyond anything she’s accomplished on the court.

“I don’t want my legacy to be, oh, ‘Caitlin won X amount of games or Caitlin scored X amount of points,’” Clark said. “I hope it’s what I was able to do for the game of women’s basketball. I hope it is the young boys and young girls that are inspired to play this sport or dream to do whatever they want to do in their lives.”

The evidence has been everywhere this weekend.

The arena was nearly full when Clark’s now iconic No. 22 made its way onto the floor for Iowa’s open practice on Saturday. Jogging out to meet her teammates in a black jersey, shorts and socks, she casually sank a 3-pointer from the wing the first time she touched the ball, a splash through the net that was met with an audible volume spike.

It was that way over the course of 50 mostly informal minutes. The cameras in the arena never wandered too far. The crowd never really went silent. It never really does when Clark is involved.

It’s been that way for more than a year. She has navigated it all with an uncommon polish, welcoming the spotlight if only because it gives her the power to point it in whatever direction she chooses.

Clark doesn’t view herself as a one of one but a part of a burgeoning ecosystem within women’s sports. Sure, a record 14.2 million tuned in to watch Iowa’s win over UConn on Friday night. She doesn’t view it as a one-off.

“I think you see it across the board, whether it’s softball, whether it’s gymnastics, volleyball,” Clark said. “People want to watch. It’s just when they’re given the opportunity, the research and the facts show that people love it.”

And they love Clark in particular, a full-circle moment for Clark she never saw coming. As a kid she remembers being part of the “Jimmer-Mania” that surrounded former BYU sharpshooter Jimmer Fredette.

Now she’s the one with kids in the stands wearing T-shirts in her likeness. She’s the one who has created a fiefdom of sorts, selling out basketball games wherever she laces up her black-and-yellow Nikes. It’s all a bit strange, if only because this was never her intention.

Growing up she dreamed of helping Iowa chase down the women’s basketball powers that be. Now she and the Hawkeyes have elbowed their way among the sport’s elite. That was always the goal, not all that has surprisingly come with it: the commercials, the name-drops from hoops royalty like LeBron James and Steph Curry and the way she’s helped make women’s basketball accessible to an audience that long considered it an afterthought if it considered it at all.

It can be dizzying. She has tried, however, to keep it in perspective, stressing whenever she can that this thing — whatever it is — is hardly just about her. It’s about those who came before and those who will come after.

It’s a group that is rapidly expanding.

As Clark and the Hawkeyes went through a walk-through that doubled as a celebration for how far they’ve come, a young girl held a sign that said “I used to play soccer, now I hoop.” She’s hardly alone.

“I genuinely believe every time that Caitlin breaks a record or comes off a game, there are thousands of boys and girls out shooting and wanting to be 22,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Thousands.”

The original is ready to cede the stage — at least at this level — to others. It’s a moment Clark knows is coming, even though she’s made it a point to not get ahead of herself. Getting too caught up in the last-ness of everything would take too much energy from the task at hand.

“Once the buzzer hits zero, whether we win or whether we lose, I’ll definitely be hit with a wave of emotion, especially over the course of the next week, as things kind of change in my life quite a bit,” she said.

The WNBA draft, where Clark is expected to be taken first overall by the Indiana Fever, awaits on April 15, little more than a week away. Then maybe some time with Team USA before the Paris Olympics.

It’s been a whirlwind. It will be a whirlwind. There will be time to reflect down the road. For now, there is just one more run with her teammates, one more opportunity to shoot deep 3s in front of a packed arena with millions more watching at home.

Some watch to root for her. Some will watch to root against her. Some will watch out of curiosity. Some will watch out of wonder.

But they’ll all watch.

And maybe that matters more to Clark than any net-cutting ceremony ever could.

“The way people are not only showing up, but cheering about the game and invested in the game, they understand the game,” she said. “They know what’s going on. They’re passionate about it. To me, that’s the coolest thing.”

That’s the Caitlin Clark thing.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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