Caitlin Clark Made It Look Easy

There is no stopping Caitlin Clark. If she were stoppable, she wouldn’t be the greatest scorer in the history of college basketball. Just as you should have always rolled your eyes at anyone who said the words “LeBron stopper” over the last 20 years, you should dismiss anyone who claims to have a plan for preventing Clark from putting the ball into the bucket. Slap them in the face before the words “you gotta be physical with her” even have a chance to form in their mouth.

And yet, it is not a good sign when, a few minutes into the biggest college basketball game of the season, the pros watching at home are sending exasperated messages to each other trying to figure out just what the fuck you are doing on defense. That is the position that the LSU Tigers found themselves in during Monday’s Elite Eight matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes, a game the Tigers would lose 94-87. With Iowa leading 17-9 four minutes into the game, LSU head coach Kim Mulkey called a timeout. By that point in the game, Clark had eight points and three assists. Her first bucket of the game was a pull-up three, which she fired after watching her defender, Hailey Van Lith, go under a screen, leaving the best shooter in the game all the room she needed. A few possessions later, Clark isolated Van Lith about 30 feet from the basket, easily beat her off the dribble, and finished a straight-line drive to the basket as Van Lith shuffled along helplessly on Clark’s hip. Clark’s next three came from the top of the key, and was once again shot into all the space that was vacated by Last-Tear Poa when she went under another screen.

Those buckets were ill portents for LSU, and the rest of the game more or less carried out as was foretold. Clark finished with 41 points, hit nine of her 20 three-point attempts, and handed out 12 assists.

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Watch these highlights and you will see Clark hitting plenty of shots for which there exists no defense. When she goes behind the back and pulls up from a step in front of the logo, there’s really, truly, nothing you can do. It is fitting that the defining image of this game may well end up being that of Van Lith, having turned around to watch the flight path of yet another audacious pull-up, throwing up her hands in pure frustration.

But you’ll also see Clark playing her way through an elimination game in a supreme state of comfort. LSU more or less left Clark to her own devices on Monday night, which gave her the freedom to orchestrate the game however she saw fit. The lanes she needs to execute her drive-and-kick game, the airspace she needs for her pull-up jumpers, and the pace she needs to throw those patented hit-ahead passes—they were all made readily available. Van Lith, who is too short, too slight, too slow (and probably too sick) to inflict any discomfort on Clark, was nevertheless left to deal with her one-on-one for most of the game. Clark rarely faced a blitz, or a hard hedge, and it wasn’t until the game was out of reach that LSU’s best perimeter defender and most athletic guard, Flau’jae Johnson, spent a few possessions defending Clark.

“There’s not a whole lot of strategy,” said Mulkey when asked after the game about how her team went about defending Clark. “You gotta guard her. Nobody else seems to be able to guard her. We didn’t even guard her last year when we beat ’em.” That’s an honest assessment, but perhaps not the one an LSU fan wants to hear from the coach of a team that had championship aspirations.

There’s no stopping Caitlin Clark, but as is the case in any matchup with an historically great player, there are gains to be made in the margins. Changing matchups, mixing up defensive schemes, and adding a little unpredictability into the game can win a possession here and there, thus leaving a team like LSU more opportunity to press the advantages it does have. The first half was evidence of this: For a few minutes LSU managed to quiet Clark, forcing her into a few turnovers and Iowa into a few empty possessions. Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow’s punishing interior game came alive, Johnson started to overwhelm Iowa’s defense with her speed and length, and suddenly LSU seemed to have the upper hand. The score was tied 45-45 at halftime, and a future in which LSU advanced to the Final Four wasn’t hard to envision. But then Clark got comfortable, and LSU learned a valuable lesson about facing an all-time great: there are ways to lose to them that hurt less than others.


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