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Caitlin Clark once dreamed of going to UConn. Now, she'll face them in the Final Four

Caitlin Clark, #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes, and her teammates celebrate after beating Louisiana State 94-87 in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA women's tournament on Monday.
Sarah Stier
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Getty Images
Caitlin Clark, #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes, and her teammates celebrate after beating Louisiana State 94-87 in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA women's tournament on Monday.

Before Caitlin Clark became college basketball's all-time leading scorer, before she became a household name, before all the network TV interviews and licensing deals and seven-story-tall Nike ads — her first March Madness ended, like so many others have, at the hands of the University of Connecticut.

As a freshman, Clark was already phenomenal. With her as their star, the Iowa Hawkeyes had reached the Sweet 16. Still, they wanted more: Iowa's first Final Four since the 1990s, and — if they dared to dream it — the program's first-ever title.

But, in March of 2021, the undisputed Goliath of women's college basketball, UConn, was too much. Clark managed 21 points, but the Huskies overpowered Iowa 92-72 en route to their 13th consecutive Final Four.

Now, three years later, as Clark's historic college career nears its end, her Iowa Hawkeyes are now a heavyweight top seed, in the Final Four for the second year in a row.

A national title is just about the only honor that Clark has yet to earn, and to do so, Iowa must square off against the Huskies one last time in a must-watch Final Four matchup Friday that is expected to break viewership records for women's college basketball.

"It's amazing to be back in the Final Four," Clark said after Iowa's Elite Eight win over Louisiana State Monday. "We want to win two more, and I think we have the power to do that."

"I thought I was going to go to UConn when I was growing up"

For Clark, that 2021 loss had another, more personal layer to it: She'd once dreamed of attending UConn, but the school had declined to recruit her.

Clark, who is now 22, grew up watching college basketball during one of the most dominant stretches of all time by any team: the UConn dynasty of the 2010s. In those years, head coach Geno Auriemma led the Huskies to four consecutive NCAA championships and a 111-game winning streak that spanned multiple entire seasons.

In particular, Clark says that she idolized former UConn star Maya Moore, who went on to play in the WNBA for the Minnesota Lynx, just a few hours' drive from Clark's hometown of Des Moines.

"I wanted to be just like her. I thought I was going to go to UConn when I was growing up, but obviously that's not what happened," Clark said in a news conference last month.

As a high schooler, Clark was recruited by schools nationwide, including by top programs like Notre Dame. But UConn and Auriemma never came calling, she told ESPN in a profile last month.

"Honestly," Clark said, "it was more I wanted them to recruit me to say I got recruited. I loved UConn. I think they're the coolest place on Earth, and I wanted to say I got recruited by them."

Ultimately, Clark committed to Iowa, where she began her career in the fall of 2020. "I know a lot of little girls dream about going to all those blue bloods, but I think playing for your home state is really something special," Clark said that season.

After UConn ended Iowa's tournament run in 2021, Auriemma pulled Clark aside after the game to pay his compliments. "He said, 'What you've done for Iowa this season has really been something special, and you have a bright future' — and to hear him say that to me really meant something," Clark said after the 2021 game. "I'm very thankful for that."

Clark's freshman season came to an end when UConn beat Iowa in the Sweet 16 by a score of 92-72.
Eric Gay / AP
/
AP
Clark's freshman season came to an end when UConn beat Iowa in the Sweet 16 by a score of 92-72.

Clark has played UConn twice before and lost both times

Within hours of Iowa's loss to UConn in the 2021 tournament, Clark was already looking ahead.

One reporter asked about UConn's smothering defense; she answered with what lessons she planned to take away. "Progressing throughout my career, it's going to be the same thing," she said then. "So, just learning from it, getting better, finding ways to move without the ball, things like that."

And even as the Hawkeyes had fallen two games short of the Final Four that year, Clark expressed confidence that it would soon be within reach. "That's the reason I came here, because there was a true belief that we were going to make the Final Four someday," she said. "We didn't say we were going to do it in my first year here."

Most prescient of all, Clark foresaw that the Hawkeyes would one day become a national draw. "People are going to be super excited about Iowa women's basketball," she said then.

Last season, when Clark was a junior, the two teams played again in a November regular season game that UConn won by seven. Clark scored 25. "Obviously [I] ... didn't shoot the ball from three the way we would have liked. But you have games like that. That's just how basketball goes," she said afterward.

Friday's Final Four game

On Friday night, Clark and Iowa will take on UConn, a No. 3 seed in this year's tournament, in a star-studded collision of powerhouses. The Huskies have their own megastar in guard Paige Bueckers, a junior, who has averaged 22 points per game this season.

After their national championship loss in last year's NCAA tournament, a red-eyed Clark said she hoped her legacy would be her impact on young kids and the people of the state of Iowa.

"I hope I brought them a lot of joy this season. I hope this team brought them a lot of joy. I understand we came up one win short," she said, sniffling and wiping her tears with a towel. "But I think we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to celebrate." It was too early at that moment, she said, to look ahead to this season.

Now, Iowa has made no secret of their ambitions: winning the title that was just barely out of reach last year.

"That's obviously our goal. That's where we want to be," Clark said Monday. "But you have to take it one at a time. There's still two more there to get."

For Clark, the biggest difference between her first tilt at UConn and now is her mental game. "I've always had the basketball skills. It's just been my mind and making my mind better," she said.

"I think the biggest thing has been my maturity and being able to move on from things when it doesn't go my way," she added. "I'm not worried about what the other team's doing. I'm not worried about what call the ref is making. I'm worried about what Iowa needs."

For UConn, Friday's game is a return to the Final Four after missing out last season. "There's something about when you reach this particular game," said Auriemma on Monday after UConn toppled 1-seed USC to earn their spot in the Final Four. "It may be even more emotional than winning a national championship game sometimes, because you know how hard it was to get here."

Whether Iowa or UConn wins Friday's game, their biggest challenge could yet lay ahead.

Whoever advances will take on the winner of the tournament's other Final Four matchup between a hot North Carolina State team, a No. 3 seed, and the dominant South Carolina Gamecocks, the event's top overall seed, who haven't lost a single game this season.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.

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