Steve Serby

Steve Serby

College Basketball

Caitlin Clark’s March Madness farewell is final chance to add missing piece to legacy

CLEVELAND — It was 2:40 p.m. when Caitlin Clark took the court for Iowa’s open practice court at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse a little more than 24 hours from Sunday’s NCAA championship game against South Carolina.

The arena was full for Super Saturday practice. A small army of cameramen stood waiting for her entrance. Fans in the stands rose. When she appeared with her teammates. a young girl clad in an Iowa 22 jersey screamed, “Caitlin!

This is the moment the great ones meet, the way Clyde Frazier met the moment in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals for the Knicks.

This is that moment for Caitlin Clark.

Her last game for Iowa.

Her Game 7.

“You don’t want to put all the pressure on yourself by saying, ‘I’ve got to go out and hit an X number of points, an X number of rebounds,’ ” Frazier told ESPN once. “Just go out and play the game and let it evolve, and just take over certain situations when you have to. One of the keys for me when I left the locker room, Red Holzman told me, ‘Hey, Clyde, hit the open man, keep the ball moving.’ But as the game progressed, I was the open man.”

Caitlin Clark helped Iowa eliminate South Carolina last year. Getty Images

Clark will confront a 37-0 South Carolina juggernaut that will go the extra mile to keep her from being the open woman after she knocked them off last year in a Final Four semifinal.

This is a legacy game for Clark, after losing in the 2023 national championship game to LSU.

“I think that would be the cherry on top,” she said. “That would be the top of the list, the thing that you’re most proud of. That’s something you get to share with your teammates. But at the same time, it would be for every Iowa women’s basketball player that has come before us. … To be able to win a national title for this university in a place that has loved women’s basketball and done a lot for the game would be super special, not only for myself, but for my teammates and just this program and the university overall.”

The cherry on top would be so sweet for the ultimate competitor. As sour as a defeat would be, she will be remembered for so much else that it should not define her.

Caitlin Clark will play her final game with Iowa on Sunday in the national championship. USA TODAY Sports

“I’ve played basketball at this university for four years, and for it to come down to two games and that be whether or not I’m proud of myself and proud of the way I’ve carried myself and proud of the way I’ve impacted people in their lives, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment,” Clark said.

“I don’t want my legacy to be, ‘Oh, Caitlin won X amount of games,’ or, ‘Caitlin scored X amount of points.’ I hope it’s what I was able to do for the game of women’s basketball. I hope it is the young boys and young girls that are inspired to play this sport or dream to do whatever they want to do in their lives. Yeah, I think it’s just the people that we’ve brought together, the joy we’ve brought to people, the way people are recognizing women’s basketball as a sport. It’s fun to watch. Everybody loves it. It can be on the highest of stages. I think you see that with the viewership numbers.

“To me, for it to come down to 40 minutes and for me to validate myself within 40 minutes, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.”

It is not.

And yet, for some it will be.

Frazier’s Game 7 line: 36 points, 19 assists, seven rebounds.

Old-timers will recall Bill Russell’s 30-point, 40-rebound Game 7 to lead the Celtics in overtime over the Lakers in the 1962 NBA Finals.

LeBron James won his first championship with the Heat with a 37-point, 12-rebound, four-assist game against the Spurs in the 2013 Finals.

“You’ve got to win a championship,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “Like I had a great career. But it’s always, ‘Did you win a championship?’ If Caitlin wins the championship, she’s pretty damn good, yeah, like, she’s a GOAT. I mean, she’s really damn good regardless. But winning the championship would seal the deal.

Dawn Staley’s South Carolina team will try to complete a perfect season against Iowa on Sunday. Getty Images

“I hope to the dear Lord she doesn’t.”

Clark is mature and polished beyond her 22 years and not susceptible to the social media onslaught. She cares about what the important people in her life who believed in her.

“I think the biggest thing for myself is when you’re in the spotlight like this, there’s going to be a million different opinions on you,” she said. “For as many people that are going to love you, there are going to be people that don’t like you. That’s the case with every professional athlete, men or women, playing at the highest stage.”

She scored 41 points against the Gamecocks when Iowa knocked them off last year in the Final Four semis.

Caitlin Clark and Iowa survived against UConn in the Final Four on Friday to reach the national championship game. Getty Images

“Last year I very nervous guarding her just being who she is,” South Carolina’s Raven Johnson said, “but this time I’m not scared.”

Caitlin Clark will be the underdog this time. The Gamecocks have size and depth. The Hawkeyes will need another monster game from her.

“To be honest, like I don’t have many emotions of, like, this is the end for me,” Clark said. “I certainly know it is, but I don’t think I can go into the game feeling that. I don’t think that would allow me to play my best.”

It was 3:30 when the Iowa practice ended. Caitlin Clark looked up into the crowd on one side and waved goodbye. Then she looked up at the crowd on the other side and waved goodbye.

Sunday, she will wave goodbye in her 22 Iowa jersey for good. Forever.