By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is a singular player in women’s college basketball. The unicorn, according to Connecticut Sun coach Stephanie White.
Don’t even bother to look at the list of her awards and statistical accomplishments. Instead look at the sold-out arenas wherever she appears. Look at the countless schoolgirls who come from far and wide, regardless of the location, to get a look at her. Look at the television audience numbers for women’s basketball.
She is one of a kind: part Nancy Lieberman, part Ticha Penicheiro, part Sue Bird, all Caitlin Clark. We are lucky to have witnessed this supernova up close for four seasons. As great as she was in high school, she has blasted through the ceiling as a college player.
She is a Taylor Swift-like phenomenon in her realm.
It’s not just her physical skills, which are extraordinary, but her spatial knowledge of the floor and where shots should come from and where players should be positioned. She’s playing a different game than other college players, and she has the skills and temperament to execute her vision. She is completely fearless.
Oddly enough, for just those reasons you sometimes have to cut Clark a little slack. Iowa coaches Lisa Bluder and Jan Jensen have both talked around this concept without identifying it specifically.
There are times when Iowa’s offense, under the orchestration of Clark, is a beautiful thing to watch. It is free-flowing, eyes-up, head-in-the-game basketball. All five players are involved and in motion. Points come from everywhere and everyone whether it’s in transition or in the half court. Think the Drake game or the first and third quarters against Kansas State in Florida.
But no team really sustains offensive excellence throughout an entire game. It happens, but it’s rare. Sometimes when subs come in the chemistry or flow is disrupted. Sometimes shots just don’t fall with the same frequency. Sometimes poor decision-making leads to poor shots or turnovers.
Sometimes Iowa’s lulls take place when Clark tries to do too much, too fast. Sometimes she plays as if only she can remedy what’s ailing the Hawkeyes. She has the talent and the confidence to believe she can make a difference, and that’s another thing that separates her from other players.
Iowa, which faces Bowling Green (5-1) on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, gave up two double-digit leads against Kansas State in the second and fourth quarters. Bluder said post foul trouble and the loss of Hannah Stuelke to injury contributed to the second-quarter swoon. In the fourth quarter Iowa went five minutes without scoring, missing seven shots (four by Clark) with no offensive rebounds and committing one turnover. After trailing by 10 the Wildcats took a one-point lead.
KSU hit some shots and obviously defended Iowa vigorously. But Iowa looked out of sync again. Each game has its own ebbs and flows. Coaches always talk about games being a matter of runs. And you have to credit the KSU defense, which has given Iowa fits during three games over two seasons.
But just when you thought Iowa was ready to give it up again to K-State, the cavalry showed up in the person of… Caitlin Clark. Kate Martin made a driving layup, and Clark sank two 3-pointers in back-to-back possessionsCoaches understand this kid, with her extraordinary physical ability, knowledge and drive, is different.
Coaches leave her in the game to work out of her increasingly rare funks because they know she eventually will. You know you’re better with her on the floor, and you accept some of the questionable decisions and let them ride. Sometimes you take timeout so everyone can regroup. Sometimes you roll the dice.
But Iowa has banked on the idea that you don’t take a genius off the floor. And you live with the results, which have catapulted the program to the upper echelon of women’s basketball. It’s really not a gamble when you have an ace in the hole.