This was a celebration and a mission. She pointed at the game ball. Yes, that one. She cradled it and disappeared into a circle of bouncing, shouting teammates. Then she managed her final assist of this historically wondrous night, tossing the ball to her father with typical precision while the Hawkeyes basked in a 97-83 victory over Louisville in the Seattle Region 4 final.
It was too soon for Clark to grasp the significance of what she accomplished Sunday. It was too soon for everyone, really. Incessant giggling was the best way to process her outrageous stat line: 41 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds. It was the ultimate signature performance of a young career bustling with signature performances, a show that exceeded all hype and muted all hate, so much hoops wizardry that it made a tense Elite Eight competition seem more like a concert.
Clark, immortal now at age 21, didn’t need to understand it all. She knew enough. She knew to get that ball to her family.
“I hope they got out of the arena in time, so the NCAA can’t chase ’em down,” Clark said, laughing. “I told ’em to run.”
Clark considers herself “maybe a little too goofy at times,” which is a relief because we’re running out of descriptions that capture what a serious talent she is. She transformed Climate Pledge Arena into her amusement park, weaving through versatile Louisville defenders, draining step-back three-pointers, whipping passes from every angle to find shooters. It was the first 40-point triple double in NCAA tournament history. No woman or man had accomplished the feat, and Clark did it in her biggest game to date, with a Final Four at stake that she had vowed to deliver upon committing to Iowa in 2019.
“She is spectacular,” said Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder, who finally gets to take a team to the Final Four after 38 years of coaching and 850 victories. “I don’t know how else to describe what she does on the basketball court. A 40-point triple double against Louisville to go to the Final Four? Are you kidding? I mean, it’s mind-boggling.”
Before a crowd of 11,700, Clark took over in a city that has seen WNBA superstars Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Lauren Jackson at their best. Seattle once watched Kelsey Plum score an NCAA women’s record 3,527 points at Washington. In Tacoma, Wash., about 35 miles south of Seattle, Pat Summitt won her second NCAA title at Tennessee in 1989. The year before, Louisiana Tech, with Leon Barmore as the head coach and a feisty former all-American named Kim Mulkey as an assistant, did the same in Tacoma. This region knows basketball royalty. Clark exited this stage looking as regal as anyone who has roamed this women’s basketball haven.
Clark came to Iowa as a wunderkind with a dream. She is from West Des Moines, and though she could have played anywhere, she wanted to lift the Hawkeyes. In interviews, she talked aloud about the Final Four so much that Bluder thought to herself, “Quit doing that, man.”
“I learned a long time ago not to always give your goals away to people,” Bluder said. “Because there’s a lot of people that want to tear them down. She wasn’t afraid of that goal. She wasn’t afraid of putting it out there.”
Said Clark: “A lot of people told me it would never happen when I came to the University of Iowa. But she believed in me, and that was really all that mattered. And we made our locker room believe, and when you dream and work really hard, a lot of really cool things can happen.”
Production has never been a problem for Clark. She averaged 26.6 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds as a freshman. Then she put up 27-8-8 as a sophomore. She remains just as prolific this season, but she’s a much better player. It’s her mental toughness, her composure. It’s the trust she shows in her teammates.
On Sunday, Louisville scored the game’s first eight points. Iowa didn’t panic. The Hawkeyes switched to a zone defense. Then Clark scored or assisted on their first 30 points. For the game, she ended up accounting for 71 of their 97 points. Early on, Clark had to match the hot shooting of Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith, who led the Cardinals with 27 points. But for all her scoring prowess, Clark is most dangerous when she’s creating for others. She dished to McKenna Warnock, who had 17 points, and Gabbie Marshall, who finished with 14. With Magic Johnson-like flair, she led an Iowa fast break that resulted in 18 points in transition.
It wasn’t a flawless effort. Clark committed nine turnovers, several of which came on pinpoint passes that her teammates couldn’t handle. But she never stops attacking, never refrains from exploring all the options in her vast skill set. She sees a different game. She plays a different game.
“This is probably the biggest game I played in, but I honestly felt it was one of the most calmness I’ve ever felt before a basketball game in my life,” said the 6-foot-guard. “I believed and I visualized to be in this press conference with a hat and a shirt around me. So here we are.”
She’s had to work on finding that level of peace. Before this season, Clark’s intensity was a distraction at times. She barked at the referees even more than she does now. She couldn’t mask many of her frustrations.
Then, after Creighton upset Iowa in the second round of the 2022 NCAA tournament, she realized she needed to work with the coaching staff on improving her mental toughness. She has done a better job controlling her emotions. It’s an especially important skill because Iowa plays such an up-tempo style full of spurts and dramatic swings in momentum. The more even-keeled Clark can be, the more relaxed the entire team will play.
“I’m somebody that’s full of fire and passion and that’s who I am, that’s always who I’m going to be, and I’m never going to lose that,” Clark said. “It’s just understanding the moments of when my team needs it and when I need to lock in and turn on to the next play. I think it’s something I’ve been working on, especially this year. I knew if we wanted to go far, I can’t get too hung up on other plays. I can’t get hung up on turnovers I’ve had, missed shots I’ve had.”
There wasn’t much for her to lament against Louisville. She scored 41 points on 19 field goal attempts. She made 8 of 14 three-pointers, many Steph Curry-esque. With Sue Bird in attendance, she dropped dimes with a level of anticipation reminiscent of the greatest point guard in women’s basketball history.
Clark felt something from the crowd that has become familiar: awe. Thousands of people watched her every movement, waiting for her to do something else that only she can do.
“You feel kind of powerful,” Clark said. “It’s kind of cool.”
Her game doesn’t just thrill. It hypnotizes. If we’re lucky, she will keep us in this giggly state for another 15 years.