Caitlin Clark's triple-double powers Iowa into Final Four

SEATTLE -- Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball coach Lisa Bluder sat in Caitlin Clark's living room when the young point guard she was recruiting first revealed to her that she wanted to go to a Final Four.

A lot of outsiders told Clark -- a native of West Des Moines, Iowa -- that such a thing could never happen at a place like Iowa, which hadn't made it that deep in the NCAA tournament since 1993, when the team was coached by legendary C. Vivian Stringer. But since arriving in Iowa City ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, Clark didn't just maintain that goal, didn't just persuade the rest of the locker room that it could be done. She didn't shy away from broadcasting it, either.

"She was the one that said, 'We're going to the Final Four,'" Bluder said of her three-time All-American and national player of the year contender. "She kept saying it in the paper, and I was thinking, 'Quit doing that, man.' I learned a long time ago not to always give your goals away to people, because there's a lot of people that want to tear 'em down."

But no one -- including the defensive-minded Louisville Cardinals playing in their fifth consecutive Elite Eight -- was going to tear down Clark on her quest to get the Hawkeyes to Dallas this spring. In one of the most memorable postseason performances in the sport's history, Clark dazzled by recording the first 40-point triple-double in a men's or women's NCAA tournament game to lift Iowa to a 97-83 victory over Louisville in the Seattle 4 Regional final Sunday night at Climate Pledge Arena.

On the biggest stage of her young career, Clark finished with 41 points (11-for-19 shooting), 12 assists and 10 rebounds, scoring or assisting on 70 of Iowa's 97 points (72.2%) on her way to being named the Most Outstanding Player of the regional. Clark's triple-double -- her sixth of the season and the 11th of her career -- contained the second-most points of any triple-double in Division I history.

"A 40-point triple-double against Louisville to go to the Final Four -- are you kidding?" Bluder said. "I mean, it's mind-boggling."

Clark & Co. will face the winner of Monday's Elite Eight matchup between Maryland and undefeated defending national champion South Carolina.

Seattle Storm legend Sue Bird, who surprised Iowa at shootaround Sunday morning, told the Hawkeyes that the Elite Eight can be the most difficult game of the entire tournament, one ripe for adversity. The stakes for Iowa felt even higher, too, after the crushing disappointment of its second-round exit in Clark's sophomore year and having fallen to UConn in the Sweet 16 the season before. This year is also the last go-round for two members of the Hawkeyes' three-year starting five unit, Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock.

And yet, Clark said, "I honestly felt it was one of the most calmest I've ever felt before a basketball game in my life."

Louisville jumped ahead 8-0 early, marking Iowa's biggest deficit of the postseason. But after an Iowa timeout, Clark took control, scoring or assisting on all of the Hawkeyes' points in the first quarter and eventually their first 30 of the game. The Cardinals hit just enough shots to make it a five-point game at the break before Clark and the Hawkeyes blew it open in the first 11 minutes of the second half, jumping ahead by as many as 22. While Clark shot 8-for-14 on 3s on her own (with a trio coming in the first quarter), she helped the rest of her teammates get going as well. Warnock and Kate Martin combined for 5-for-11 shooting from deep, while Marshall went 3-for-5 after halftime, helping offset a relatively quiet night from Czinano (nine points).

"I thought we had to score in the 80s," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "But you just got to tip your hat to them. They scored more."

By the game's end, with Iowa up 12 and teammate Gabbie Marshall preparing to take a pair of free throws with 69 seconds remaining, Clark waved at the heavily pro-Iowa crowd to get loud and put a hand to her ear, prompting fans to give her even more.

Climate Pledge Arena, the recently renovated home of the Storm, might be the house that Bird helped build. But Sunday night, it was all Clark's.

Once the buzzer sounded, Clark beelined from the bench toward teammate Molly Davis to secure the game ball. She later told reporters that she chucked it to her dad, encouraging her family to bolt from the arena in time so the NCAA couldn't stop them. After alternating between hyping up the crowd, fulfilling media duties and celebrating with teammates, she and associate head coach Jan Jensen jointly placed an Iowa sticker on the paper bracket brought onto the court, establishing that the Hawkeyes are headed to Dallas. Jensen's father died of cancer earlier that day, and the team dedicated its victory to her. Well after Clark first kissed and cradled the regional trophy, well after she was the second Iowa member to climb the ladder and cut off her piece of the net, she was still on the floor. Screaming fans lined the tunnel Clark was set to exit through, necessitating a quick autograph and selfie session supervised by Jensen before ducking away.

Fifteen minutes later, she took her seat at the postgame news conference, catching a glimpse of the box score and groaning at the hefty number of turnovers she hadn't realized she had finished with (nine). All the same, it was a footnote to the fulfillment of the goal she set out to achieve when she joined forces with Bluder. With a sliver of the net poking out from the back of her cap, Clark told reporters she had even visualized one day being up on the dais, wearing Iowa Final Four gear.

"When you dream and work really hard," Clark said, "a lot of really cool things can happen."