Women's NCAA tournament 2022: Megastar Caitlin Clark brings bold and bountiful game into March

IN A STATE known for "Nebraska Nice," they booed Caitlin Clark. It happened on an early January Sunday, right after church. Dadgummit, you'd boo, too. The Nebraska-Iowa border rivalry, in recent times, sparks painful memories for the Cornhuskers (Google "kicker Keith Duncan," "Nebraska football sideline" and "blows a kiss"). But that's only part of it.

Clark plays basketball like she lives: Loud and bold. It can be off-putting if you're on the receiving end of it. She doesn't just make 3-pointers; she swishes logo shots. She doesn't just pass the ball. Her assists can contain enough zip to maim someone if not handled properly, and have a tendency to make people look silly. She has a smile that doubles as a smirk, she has Kevin Durant gushing over her, but most of all, and this is what flummoxes people the most, is that Clark is a young woman without a shred of self-doubt.

With about 30 seconds to go at Nebraska and a close game finally in hand for the Hawkeyes, she was fouled for the 10th time and proceeded to dribble and run the length of the floor after the whistle blew, laying the ball up and into the hoop. That's when they booed.

They were playing right into her hands.

Clark raised her arms, wiggled her fingers and motioned, "bring it on" to the 8,415 who filled the lower bowl at Pinnacle Bank Arena. She proceeded to miss the first free throw, and the crowd leapt out of its seats and roared. It may be hyperbole, but one Nebraska fan would later say it was the loudest she'd heard it at the arena in years, for the women or the men. Clark finished with 31 points and 12 assists; Iowa won 95-86.

A few minutes later, she showed up at the postgame news conference, predictably unfazed.

"That," she said, "was a super-fun game."

Clark will be one of the most talked-about athletes, man or woman, throughout March Madness, and that, in some ways, is by design. She wants to grow the women's game, and knows that the more she entertains, the more people -- love her or hate her -- will watch.

Her skills on the court are more than enough to keep an audience captivated. Clark is the first woman in Division I history to lead the country in scoring (27.4) and assists (7.9), and she's only a sophomore. She's made 47 3-pointers from 25 feet or beyond (the NBA's 3-point arc is 23 feet, 9 inches) and has landed sponsorship deals with H&R Block and Hy-Vee, a large grocery chain that has also partnered with NFL quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Kirk Cousins.

Clark is the rare college athlete who requires security.

Sometime after an early February game at Michigan, when Clark scored 46 points and nearly willed her short-handed team back from a 25-point deficit by hitting a couple of 3s with her feet on the M logo, random strangers started hanging around and waiting for Clark at her car, so Iowa now has an escort following her in and out of hotels and arenas.

Clark, who's from West Des Moines, Iowa, thinks it's weird that she needs security. It's a reminder of how quickly things can change when a shooter becomes a continuous highlight reel and a team gets on a roll.

"We have fun every single time we're out there on the floor, and that's what people want to see," Clark says. "They don't want to see slow basketball, or people not showing emotion.

"I grew up dreaming of being in this moment, playing in the Final Four, playing on the biggest stage. I'm not sure I dreamed of everybody talking about me. If that's going to help grow the women's game, great. I'm all for it."

And there is no stage more conducive to growing the game than the NCAA tournament. No. 2 Iowa (23-7), riding a seven-game winning streak, plays No. 15 Illinois State (19-13) in the first round Friday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Iowa City. The game is sold out, which has only happened four times in Iowa women's history -- twice this season. The Hawkeyes made it to the Sweet 16 last year, and that's really where the legend of Caitlin Clark began. They lost to UConn, but now Clark is a year older and anything seems possible.

IMAGINE SCORING 18 points in a game and having that game labeled an off day. That's Caitlin Clark's world. Imagine being the No. 1 star at your high school but living in relative anonymity in college, sprinting down the floor after Clark has missed a long 3. That's Clark's teammates' world.

Team-building is an ongoing project with someone as massive as Clark on the roster, but Iowa's coaches knew there was something special brewing this winter, when captain Kate Martin spoke up during the team breakdown before one practice.

"We need to remember that the crown she carries is heavy," Martin said, looking around at the team.

Associate head coach Jan Jensen still gets choked up when she thinks about that. Iowa's coaches started pondering how to successfully manage a team built around one dynamic player years ago. Before Clark even signed with the Hawkeyes.

Athletes like Clark don't come around often in Iowa. Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly says Clark is the best girls player to ever come out of the state, a McDonald's All-American who averaged 33.4 points and eight rebounds her senior year at Dowling Catholic High.

It's not as if the Hawkeyes hadn't had dominating players before. In 2019, Iowa forward Megan Gustafson won the Naismith Trophy, which is given to the best women's college basketball player. But with Clark came what Jensen calls "extras," from her large personality to her long-distance lust.

"It's complex," Jensen says, "because she is so very good and there's just a different way that the light shines on her. With Caitlin, you're on the edge of your seat. 'Is she going to take it, did she take it, and oh my God, she made it.'"

Of course, the reward doesn't come without risk. While Clark ranks first in points per game and total points, she's 121st in field goal percentage (45.58%) and 128th in 3-point field goal percentage (33.33%). In other words, teammates need to take some lemon with the sublime.

Coach Lisa Bluder doesn't necessarily endorse Clark randomly firing away from the logo, but she knows that Clark hits so many 3s that sometimes 26 feet is easier than 23 because it's less contested. If Clark is in a zone, Bluder says, she wants her to shoot. "We want to be a free-flowing offense," Bluder says. "We want to be a high-scoring offense. And you don't do that by handcuffing your players."

Before Clark arrived on campus, and Iowa's coaches would talk about all the things she'd bring, they decided that they never wanted to break Clark's spirit; they only hoped to tame it a bit. The line between where Clark has the green light to shoot and where she doesn't might still be a bit murky.

"I think sometimes, 'Should I shoot this or should I not?" Clark says. "Sometimes I don't even notice how far back I am until I rewatch it. More than anything, those are shots I practice every single day. Those aren't just shots I decide to chuck up during the game.

"I mean, there's probably been a couple, just because I missed them, that I'm like, 'Oh, shoot, Coach Bluder might not be too happy about that one.' But it's never, 'Oh, crap,' right when it leaves my hand. I'm usually pretty confident when I shoot it. But I think just understanding time and score is something I'm still learning."

For the past two seasons, Bluder and her coaching staff have put together team-building exercises that are frequent and more subtle than campfire Kumbayas. They bring in speakers with messages about teamwork and sacrifice. In one of the pre-practice talks, Jensen compared the team to a rock band. One person may be the lead singer, but everyone plays together to make one sound. They used a team psychologist who worked on mental imagery and communication.

Monika Czinano, a senior center who leads the nation with a 67.8% shooting percentage -- a stat that would be better known if she didn't play alongside Clark -- took a few lumps in those first few days with Clark. Literally. The freshman had such a great court awareness that she'd fire the ball to Czinano when she had no idea it was coming. It would hit her on the back of the head, the side of the head and other various body parts.

That went on for much of the season, until around the NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes were playing Kentucky for a trip to the Sweet 16, and Czinano was running back in transition and figured there was no way Clark was going to throw the ball to her. Experience told her she should probably check anyway, and by this time it was three inches from her face.

"Not a lot of point guards will throw into the post going into transition, like 1-on-3," Czinano says. "She has a lot of confidence in all of us and that she can make the pass, so she does it."

Czinano says she doesn't worry about the attention she might be missing out on. When the spotlight is on Clark, she says, it hits all of them. Czinano knew they had something special in one of those first practices in 2020, just after the team came together again during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were scrimmaging against the men's practice squad, and Clark kept hitting 3s and practically willing them back, undeterred by the fact that the contest was meaningless.

"A lot of people hate on Caitlin and the way she plays," Czinano says. "But I think it's the same way some of the men are playing. I've heard a lot of people say that they enjoy watching us because of the way we play, and it's bringing more eyes to women's basketball.

"I think whenever people hate on women, especially Caitlin, for being emotional and being into the game and doing what she does it's because they're women. And for so long women have been afraid to be out there and be vocal and passionate and full of fire. I know in our program we encourage expressing ourselves. It's worked out pretty well for us. We've got two [Big Ten] rings in eight days and we're going to keep doing it."

For Clark, a first-team All-American, Big Ten player of the year and Naismith Trophy finalist, that's never been in doubt.

IT WAS ANOTHER winter Sunday, this time in February, when Clark had another did-Caitlin-really-just-do-that moment on the road. Blake Clark was sitting in his living room in Ames, Iowa, watching the game with his roommates when he decided to get up and use the restroom.

Blake, who besides being a backup quarterback for the Iowa State football team, is a large part of the reason why Caitlin is so competitive. Her childhood was spent tagging along with her big brother and his friends, and they showed little mercy on the girl who always believed she could hang with them, be it on the basketball court or as target practice with plastic pellets from air-soft guns.

On Feb. 6, the night of that Michigan game, Blake Clark didn't think he'd miss much when he quickly ducked away from the TV. The Hawkeyes were down by 25.

Then he heard one of his roommates screaming in another room. Caitlin had just hit a 3 from all the way in Ypsilanti, then drilled another one from the logo to pull the Hawkeyes within 10. "Holy smokes," the broadcaster on the Big Ten Network said. Bluder barely reacted and walked down the sideline. She'd seen Clark do things like this before.

By then, Blake and his friends were jumping up and down in Ames, but the fun was short-lived. Iowa, playing with just seven people, lost the game 98-90. Clark finished with a career-high 46 points and scored 25 in the fourth quarter. Blake plays football in a Power 5, but sometimes even he can't believe the big-time world that surrounds his little sister. LeBron James posted an Instagram story last month with Clark's picture and the caption, "She got so much game! Tough!"

Caitlin, who turned 20 in January, still seems somewhat in awe of it too. "Goofy" is a word her teammates use to describe her. Hawkeyes guard Gabbie Marshall, who roomed with her in the summer, says Clark is always high energy, always loud. She clangs the pots and pans and slams cabinets when she's home "cheffing it up." She used to wake Marshall up because she walks so hard across the floor that it sounds like a football player is coming, not a 6-foot, 155-pound stick of dynamite.

"The people [in the apartment] underneath were probably like, 'Please, never walk again,'" Marshall says.

What might be most surprising to those who don't know her, who only see the showmanship, is that Clark is, in many ways, just like everybody else.

"One thing that really shows," Marshall says, "is just how much she just loves her teammates and is just humble about everything. I mean she's so good at the game of basketball. Everybody knows that. But she comes in, ready to work, happy to be there. She just shows every day how much she loves her teammates and coaches. I think that's big when you have such a star on your team."

WHEN CLARK WAS in fourth grade, her dad took her to a Minnesota Lynx game. She wanted to meet Maya Moore. Clark ran up to Moore after the game. She isn't sure if she got her autograph, or a picture, but she remembers that Moore hugged her. And it's something, Clark says, that will stick with her forever.

"For someone like Maya Moore to literally give me one minute of her time probably made my entire year," Clark says. "It was a super-cool memory."

Clark knew that if she ever became a basketball star, she'd try her best to make every kid feel as special as Moore made her feel years ago. During that Jan. 9 game at Nebraska, a young teenaged girl asked Clark for her shoelaces, and she wound up just giving the girl her shoes. She smiled and posed with little boys sitting in the stands with their teams and made some new fans in an enemy state.

Even with some of the people who booed her. Faith Thomas, a seventh-grade English teacher in Lincoln, says it's hard not to respect Clark's game.

"She does get under your skin," Thomas says. "But I think it's because she's talented in ways you aren't used to seeing.

"Whenever she got the ball, everybody would tense up. If somebody left her unguarded, the crowd would start screaming. It kept us on our toes the whole time."

But what 11-year-old Hazel Dillavou will remember is what happened the night before the game, on a Saturday. Dillavou was in Lincoln with her sixth-grade basketball team from the Kansas City area and was staying at the same hotel as the Hawkeyes. She saw the team bus roll in that night after the Hawkeyes made an ice-cream run and snapped a photo with Clark. Hazel didn't say anything; she was so nervous she was shaking.

But now the girl who was obsessed with Steph Curry keeps begging her mom for a Caitlin Clark jersey. She cheered Clark on from the stands the next day, and her mom, Traci, was certain they'd get kicked out because Hazel was screaming and yelling for Clark.

Now Hazel practices her 3-point shot, dreams of playing for the Hawkeyes and someday being Caitlin Clark.

"She is my favorite player," Hazel says. "I just like her confidence, I guess."

ESPN producer Aaron Johnson contributed to this story.