By Adam Jacobi on February 28, 2022 at 9:00 am
Caitlin Clark celebrates another three-pointer with the Iowa crowd
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

"We need to see Caitlin Clark play."


Such was the text I got from a friend the morning after Clark's biggest step yet onto the national stage, the 46-point barrage back in early December when Clark staked her territorial claim to Michigan's midcourt Block M logo. Obviously I agreed — what are you going to do, say no to that? — and as luck would have it, the last weekend home game on Iowa's schedule by that point was this one, Senior Day, Michigan's turn on Iowa's home court. 

We were hoping to see something worth remembering. What we got was unforgettable.

Two things have to be mentioned, straight out of the gate. Both are obvious, but both are elemental to the way Sunday's game unfolded:

1. The crowd was out of its mind. 

Friends texted me throughout the game to mention how loud the crowd seemed on television. Trust: it was even more electric, goosebump-worthy in person. And the energy kept up throughout the entire game; even with Michigan taking a large early lead, all it took was one three-pointer to get the crowd right back on its feet, en masse. We've all got our "down in front" stories about Carver, but none of those stories got written on Sunday.

Obviously you can't make the whole season out of Senior Days and you can't make the whole team out of Caitlins Clark just like you can't make the whole plane out of black box. And Iowa fans' ability to recognize a big game or big moment is not always a positive; if Directional Shatner State is in town, yeah, you're not getting this atmosphere. But — Iowa should now have a solid reputation as a fearsome big-game crowd. Think about it: when was the last time in any of Iowa's major sports when a top-10 opponent was in town, and you thought "boy, the crowd didn't really show up for this one"?

But this was as "on" as it gets. And by the postgame celebration when Lisa Bluder told the crowd they were "the best [fans] in America," it wasn't really that much of an exaggeration. 

2. Caitlin Clark is absolutely ridiculous.

Of course, it's easy to incinerate a packed crowd when Caitlin Clark is going supernova. And in a season full of ridiculous performances, this really, really might have been her magnum opus.

Shooting 8-for-11 from deep is amazing. Dropping 38 points, 11 assists and 6 rebounds on anyone is amazing, much less against a top-10 opponent who's playing for an outright conference title. But what made it all truly scary was how she did it... and how it could have been worse.

Iowa had rotten luck at the rim early in the game, negating some sweet passes from Clark that really deserved to fulfill their destinies as assists. As for scoring, Clark took her foot off the gas pedal in the 4th quarter, not even attempting a shot — it was name-your-score territory before then, and everyone in maize and blue knew it. And even missing only three of her 11 three-point attempts... man, they were awfully close misses.

All of this production came as Michigan geared its entire defense around stopping Clark, who often found herself pressed or even doubled as soon as she was 35 feet from the bucket. Sure, Clark let a few logo shots fly right off the dribble — not only because she can, but because it might have been the most open look she'd get in the possession. 

You may remember the talk of Steph Curry's "gravity" as an offensive player — a nebulous quality that generally relates to the amount of attention defenders pay to him whenever he's on the court, to the benefit of his teammates. Clark is every bit as, well, gravitational as anyone who's worn the Iowa uniform.

One thing about Clark's game that jumps out in person, more than on TV, is her sense of timing on passes. When she breaks down her defender(s) on a drive and forces a rotation, she's so adept at recognizing the play that the help defender will already be moving in the wrong direction by the time she reacts, the pass already bouncing by the helpless foe. The game must move in slow-motion for her compared to everybody else. It's unfair.     

Another thing that jumps out: it's Caitlin Clark's court whenever she steps onto it, and she knows it. She works the referees harder than Tom Izzo, talks back to any opponent with something to say, takes three-pointers that would get 99.9% of players benched and/or tased by their coaches, and relishes every second of it. It is, you have to admit, just a little bit villainous, but in a very fun way. Clark is due to join Trae Young as the only college basketball players to lead D-1 in points and assists per game, and the two are kindred spirits as cold-blooded hardcourt assassins. 

Do other players hate it? Some, yeah, probably. And it's definitely no fun when she's doing it to your team. They can hate it, but they can't mock it, because they can't stop it. She's the best player on the floor no matter who you put against her. She's the college basketball player of the year and, respect to Aliyah Boston, it's not close.

One more thing on Clark: after Bluder gave her a curtain call with 2:20 left and Iowa up 23, Michigan leaned into its press, harassing senior Tomi Taiwo into a turnover and runout. Bluder then sent Clark back into the game, gently reminding the Wolverines that sportsmanship ought to be reciprocated. Clark easily beat the Michigan defense down the floor, drew the Wolverines' seventh foul of the final period, then checked back out after her 37th and 38th points. The message was well received; Michigan dutifully cut the malarkey and took the blowout with grace the rest of the way.

The last thing I'll mention is this. We're a sports site on the internet, right in the thick of social media and comment sections. We've been around these here onlines for a day or two by now, and we know how much of a lightning rod women's sports can be for anonymous keyboard warriors and anyone else who wants to take the piss out of people for enjoying different things. But (as he posts, on the internet) the internet is not real.

What's real is what we got to see on Sunday: a full house of 15,000 people cheering their throats out, loud enough to rattle the rafters and shake down every ounce of brilliance they held, right onto Caitlin and her teammates.

I don't say this lightly: it felt like Kinnick for the Penn State game. It felt like something close to a spiritual experience. It ruled.

Caitlin Clark gestures to the crowd
Photo via the tremendously talented folks running @IowaWBB

I hope you all got to witness it. And I hope we all get to see something like it again soon.

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