Caitlin Clark’s scoring record makes her historic. Her greatness makes her ‘unmatched’

IOWA CITY, Iowa — After the record had fallen but before the celebrations really kicked off, Caitlin Clark found herself on an island.

She had known the general plan for the night if she made history, if she became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball.

Photos. A commemorative basketball. A quick interview for the fans in the arena.

But she didn’t know about the video. She wasn’t prepared for that.

With all eyes on her and five television cameras stationed just a few feet in front of her, Clark leaned up against the scorer’s table — the same spot where she has checked in and out of games hundreds of times over the past four years — and looked up at the big video board. She folded her arms and braced herself. She had promised herself she wouldn’t cry on this night.

But then her parents Brent and Anne appeared onscreen first with her golden retriever, Bella, and after, both of her brothers, Blake and Colin.

“A huge milestone, huge number,” Anne said. “But remember, it’s all the smiles, memories and so many special moments that are behind that number that are yours for a lifetime.”

Brent was the first person to put a basketball in Clark’s hands. Her first coach. The person who wouldn’t allow her to shoot those long-range 3s as a little kid because she wasn’t strong enough … yet. He had her do form shooting over and over again. Torture at the time. A gift in hindsight.

Her mom is the one whose mind and memory most resemble Caitlin’s, they say. Her brothers are the two who, as kids, toughened her up, and now, have acted as confidants and best friends in her rise to the top of the sport. In what has been a whirlwind of a year, Clark’s family has been her refuge and her protection.

So, on a night that existed to honor Caitlin Clark the Player and everything she has accomplished in and for Iowa City over the last four seasons, this was the moment that finally felt too big. Her family, seated in real life 20 feet to her right, stared down at her from the big screen above the court and reflected back to her what this journey has meant.

From the scorer’s table, Clark pulled at the neck of her jersey, wiping her eyes and nose.

“There have been so many famous and cool people, and people I idolized growing up, that say a lot of really nice things about me, but when it’s people who have had your back through the ups and downs and been there every step of the journey — whether it was good or bad — and have seen the hard days, have seen the good days,” Clark said, “that’s when it means the most.”

Everyone knew the record would fall Thursday night against Michigan. Clark was only 8 points away, which for her is just a decent quarter of hoops. But even in warmups, her shot had a little extra juice. She was loose. In a good way. Yet, she felt the pressure. Also in a good way.

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder has seen this version of her senior star before. Clark doesn’t just love these moments; she exists best in these moments. It’s why Clark has all the game winners, the clutch shots, the big performances. It’s why Bluder and assistant Jan Jensen knew during the Big Ten tournament title game last season — when Clark put up a triple-double (30 points, 17 assists, 10 rebounds) — that something special could happen in March, and maybe April. Clark was operating then in that alternative plane she can sometimes occupy. When she’s there, she can carry with her the rest of the Hawkeyes. That game spurred their NCAA Tournament run to the national championship game in Dallas, but it started with a historic performance from Clark in Minneapolis.

On Thursday night in Iowa’s home arena, with 8 points to go to set the scoring record, Clark was back on that plane.

She hit her first shot — a spin move to the baseline off the glass.

Six points to go.

She hit her second shot — a 3, coming right to left, off a perfect Gabbie Marshall screen.

Three points to go.

Then, in a moment that seemed almost too perfect, Clark had the ball in her hands, dribbling up the left side of the floor in transition. She has devastated opponents in this exact manner countless times before. On any scouting report of Clark, almost certainly, a section says in all caps: LOVES TO SHOOT TRANSITION 3S STEPPING TO HER LEFT. DO NOT LET HER TAKE A DRIBBLE TO HER LEFT. ANYWHERE IN TRANSITION IS WITHIN HER RANGE.

Clark crossed half court, took one dribble to her left and launched. She watched the ball hit the bottom of the net and then turned to the crowd and flexed.

The record was hers.

“You all knew I was going to shoot a logo 3 for the record,” Clark joked after the game. “C’mon.”

The arena erupted. Bluder didn’t call a timeout quickly enough, so Clark playfully lamented that her tired legs had to play some defense after that shot. But when Bluder finally called a timeout, Iowa just spent the huddle in silence allowing Clark to reflect.

Of course, the fans didn’t stay silent. They stayed on their feet and paid homage to the player who delivered the program its first national championship appearance, and now, a scoring record. This is why they had come, why most had shelled out hundreds of dollars to be in the arena for this night.

Because when Clark is in the arena, history can be made. And Thursday, it was. Clark scored a single-game program-record 49 points, recorded a career-best nine 3-pointers and led No. 4 Iowa to a 106-89 victory against Michigan. She now has 3,569 career points.

When the video ended, Clark met her teammates at half court. They sported custom Nike shirts that read: “You break it, you own it.” They passed around copies of a Des Moines Register (Clark’s hometown newspaper) with a full-page photo of Clark with a bold headline: “UNMATCHED.” They posed for a team photo, and they lost their minds when Clark began to dribble her commemorative ball. (What else would you expect Clark to do with a ball?)

Caitlin Clark signs autographs after beating Michigan in a record-setting performance. (Matthew Holst / Getty Images)

As the celebrations continued on the court, kids lined up along the benches and at the risers leading out of the arena. With posters and T-shirts in hand, they didn’t stay silent either. The shrieks of “Caitlin! Caitlin! Caitlin!” have become the postgame soundtrack for Iowa women’s hoops and, flanked by her two security guards, Clark makes her way through as many as she can after every game.

It was no different after she made history, after a video on the video board made her cry. As her impact and fame have grown, she has attempted to stay as accessible as possible, however that might look. She tries to sign as much as she can, take as many selfies as possible. To her, this is the most important part of her postgame routine. It feels all too recent, in some ways.

It was just more than a decade ago that Clark attended her first WNBA game. She was 11 or 12, and Brent drove her to Minneapolis to see a Lynx game. The franchise was in the middle of a run that included four titles in seven seasons, and the Lynx were the closest team to the Clarks’ West Des Moines home. For Caitlin, it was a chance to see Maya Moore play for the first time in person.

After the game, Lynx players held an event on the court. Clark, seeing an opening, ran out and hugged Moore. She didn’t have a pen or marker or anything for Moore to sign, but she wanted to be near her. Just wanted to be in the aura of Moore’s greatness.

“Ten seconds can go a long way in somebody’s life,” Clark said.

At 22, now one of the most prominent athletes in the nation, Clark still thinks about that moment.

Thursday night, fans paid hundreds (some, thousands) of dollars to enter Carver-Hawkeye Arena to watch Clark make history, just to be in the aura of Clark’s greatness. She wants them to remember that. But she also wants to remember the 10 seconds she might be able to have with them. She wants them to remember the joy she and her teammates have and the fire with which she plays.

When she signed her last autograph and jogged up the tunnel, Clark did so as the unmatched leader in women’s basketball, a player whose game has helped transform the game.

She was surrounded still by media and security, but Clark now has put herself on an entirely different island.

(Top photo of Caitlin Clark: Matthew Holst / Getty Images)

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