LINCOLN, Nebraska — On the bright side, Caitlin Clark will become the NCAA’s new all-time leading scorer in front of a home crowd later this week, just as a fairy tale or Hollywood script might have intended.
She’s only eight points shy of passing Kelsey Plum and her 3,527 points in the record books. And given that Clark leads the nation in scoring with 32.2 points per game, that feat seems pretty doable sometime in the first half when No. 2 Iowa hosts Michigan on Thursday night.
Some fans stormed the court, celebrating one of the biggest wins in program history against a team led by a generational star and future No. 1 WNBA draft pick. After reeling off 31 points through three quarters, Clark went silent in the fourth, going 0-for-6 from the field, as the Huskers mounted a comeback. It was the first time Clark played an entire fourth quarter and failed to score.
“Our goals are still intact,” Clark said.
She doesn’t care about the scoring record as much as she cares about helping her team win the Big Ten, getting back to the Final Four and winning the national championship this time.
“I mean, it’s not really on my mind right now,” Clark said of the history she’s about to make. “I just think getting better and getting back home and playing in front of our fans and executing the way we know we can execute. I think it’s important for this team.”
While there might be theories floating around that the Hawkeyes (22-3, 11-2) were focused on making sure Clark broke the record in Iowa City and not in Lincoln or anywhere else, it’s not like Clark was actively trying not to score in the fourth quarter. Nebraska changed its defensive game plan to a box-and-one, dedicating Kendall Moriarty to taking Clark away to hopefully slow things down.
No matter what Clark did — her movement on and off the ball is one of the more mesmerizing things in sports these days — Moriarty stayed on her assignment and prevented Clark from being dangerous.
And from breaking the record. Clark entered the fourth quarter needing to only score eight points and couldn’t do it.
She was visibly frustrated after the buzzer sounded and said that kind of defense is something the Hawkeyes have practiced before, though not recently.
“We should have been ready for it,” Clark said. “We should have executed our offense better. We have the plays. We have offense that we should have been running. We just didn’t execute. We didn’t get into our spots. We didn’t cut into the paint.
“Well be ready for it [next time].”
The Hawkeyes led by as many as 14 points late in the third quarter. But in the fourth, anytime Iowa made a play or hit a monstrous shot, Nebraska (16-8, 8-5) responded with one of its own. Especially Jaz Shelley, who led her team with 23 points, 10 of which came in the final 10 minutes. Perhaps no other bucket was as clutch as when she hit a 3 with 30.2 seconds left to give the Huskers a 78-77 lead, their first of the game. The raucous crowd rose to its feet and Shelley hit the “you can’t see me,” waving her hand over her face, like Clark has done on occasion.
Iowa never took the lead again. Even though the environment was ripe for it. The arena, which seats 15,500 at capacity, was filled with Hawkeyes fans who waited in line in 30-degree temperatures for blocks before they could get inside. Once they did, “Let’s Go Hawks!” chants rang early and often.
There were multiple rows of photographers and TV cameras behind each basket. Clark’s No. 22 was seen everywhere — on jerseys and T-shirts, on adults and on kids. Clever posters were as popular as friendship bracelets at a Taylor Swift concert. One little boy made a scoring countdown on his, a teenage girl somehow attached Christmas lights to the border of hers, and a young girl wearing a Clark T-shirt cut a yellow poster board into a heart and wrote “#22 will you be my valentine?”
It felt like an Iowa home game. And if Clark had scored the 39 points she needed entering this matchup to break Plum’s record, she would have been celebrated accordingly. She had more than 20 friends and family members in attendance, too.
“Coming out and seeing more yellow at first, kind of scary when you’re at home,” Nebraska center Alexis Markowski said. “We took it as a challenge. We knew we were underdogs in this situation and gave it our all and came out on top.”
Nebraska players said afterward that they didn’t know how many points Clark needed to score and weren’t motivated by it. Clark said the scoring record hasn’t been a distraction and seemed uncomfortable talking about it, more so after a loss.
“It hasn’t been a distraction at all,” Clark said emphatically. “It is what it is. It’s what comes with the territory. When it happens, it happens. Really not gonna affect my life that much.”
That’s because Clark is zoned in on team goals, not individual ones — even though with her 31 points and 10 assists Sunday, she became the first men’s or women’s player in Division I history to reach 3,000 points and 1,000 assists. Clark smiled when that nugget was brought to her attention, but quickly brought it back to her teammates.
“I mean, obviously, it’ll be special, but I think the biggest focus right now is just finding ways to grow, finding ways to get better, because this is another case of us blowing another lead, and that’s something that has to stop, and we just could have executed better,” Clark said.
“That’s my main focus right now.”
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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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