Best women’s college basketball players without a title: Caitlin Clark, Dawn Staley, Sabrina Ionescu lead list

Basketball is an unforgiving game. It’s a wicked sorceress, one that can fail to reward even the most deserving of competitors.

The NCAA Tournament brings the brightest of stars into orbit. Not all can capture the sport’s greatest prize, however. Just 41 teams have hoisted the national title trophy. That means many of the sport’s icons have failed to scale the mountaintop.

Caitlin Clark joined that exclusive list on Sunday. The Iowa standout saw her beloved Hawkeyes fall at the hands of South Carolina, 87-75, spelling a sour end to what was a glittering career.

Given her numerous accomplishments — just on Sunday, Clark reached new heights in terms of 3-pointers made and career points tallied in NCAA Tournament games — Clark ranks as one of the sport’s finest talents. But just how does she compare to other legends who fell short of capturing the college game’s ultimate prize?

The Sporting News has you covered, detailing some of the game’s greatest hoopers to fail to receive a ring.

MORE: Full list of every NCAA game, tournament, career record broken by Caitlin Clark

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Best women’s college basketball players without a title

Caitlin Clark

Clark strung together a near-faultless career in Iowa City, tallying more points (3,951) and more 3-pointers (548) than any other player to grace the floor. She tended to elevate her play when the lights were at their brightest, adding to her closet with the NCAA Tournament’s record for points (492), assists (152) and 3-pointers (78).

Clark leaves the college game as perhaps its most productive player. She also dropped two national championship games, far more than some of her counterparts atop the totem pole.

Nevertheless, she’s got some serious competition for the designation of women’s college basketball’s greatest talent to not win a title.

MORE: Why Caitlin Clark doesn’t need title to enter GOAT debate

Dawn Staley Virginia 04062024

(Getty Images)

Dawn Staley

As far as floor generals go, Staley is one of the sport’s greatest to ever grace the hardwood.

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The former Virginia signal-caller racked up countless accolades during her time in Charlottesville.

Staley thrice led the Cavs to the Final Four while enrolled at UVA. The Cavaliers lost just 11 games during her final three years on campus, stringing together the only two 30-win campaigns in team history in the process. She finished her career as the program’s all-time leading scorer. Although she was usurped by Monica Wright in UVA’s record book, Staley still sits second in points and assists some 31 years after graduating.

MORE: How Tessa Johnson, Gamecocks bench led South Carolina to national championship glory

She also turned the Hoos — an afterthought in college basketball before her arrival — into a national powerhouse.

“So many of the things that Dawn did were just naturally what Dawn was about,” Staley’s college head coach, Debbie Ryan, told Cavalier Daily’s Joe von Storch in 2022. “So her personality became a national symbol of what women’s basketball should be about.

“I think that’s the thing that makes me the most proud of Dawn Staley, and that the University of Virginia played a small part in her life.”

Lynette Woodard

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Lynette Woodard

Woodard’s name has reentered the collegiate stratosphere in recent months, mostly on account of Clark’s assault on her longtime scoring record. The Kansas supernova poured down 3,649 points in her four-year odyssey in Lawrence, Kansas. Woodard was named a four-time All-American, averaging 26.3 points per contest.

At the time, women’s basketball was caught underneath the swell of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Not until the 1981-82 season, which immediately followed Woodard’s final year, did the NCAA begin to offer championships for collegiate women’s athletics.

MORE: Why Lynette Woodard says Caitlin Clark didn’t break her scoring record

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The NCAA — despite admitting certain records from the AIAW, including program wins and losses and coaching wins and losses — does not recognize scoring totals for players who spent the majority of their time in the AIAW, including Woodard.  

Her impact on the game is still immeasurable. She was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004 on account of her on-the-floor exploits.

Kelsey Plum

Following in the footsteps of Woodard and pushing aside the shrubbery for Clark and Sabrina Ionescu to make their mark, Plum is one of the sport’s finest shooters. She was a trebuchet from deep, hitting 3-pointers at a 38.2 percent clip while at Washington.

Plum was a force from all three levels of the floor. As such, she developed into a fearsome scorer. In her senior season, Plum flirted with 50/40/90 shooting splits, all the while averaging 31.7 points per game.

MORE: What Kelsey Plum, Sheryl Swoopes have said about Caitlin Clark’s pro career

For her efforts, she was rewarded with two All-American team appearances, four All-Pac 12 first-team selections and the Wooden Award, Naismith Award and AP Player of the Year awards in 2017.

The Huskies made one Final Four during Plum’s time on campus. However, her place in history is unquestioned — Plum finished her collegiate career as the most decorated scorer in Division I history.

Elena Delle Donne

Surrounded by harrowing giants like UConn, Tennessee and Baylor, Delle Donne — a lanky standout who took the floor at D1 minnow Delaware — stood out.

At least, until she leapt over the mire to sink her sumptuous jumper.

Delle Donne spurned some of college basketball’s superpowers in favor of staying close to home and her sister, Lizzie. Despite dealing with various bouts of Lyme disease, Delle Donne still flourished, ending her collegiate career with averages of 26.7 points and 8.9 rebounds on .481/.409/.910 shooting splits. She also led the Blue Hens to the Sweet 16 in her senior season, vanquishing No. 3-seeded North Carolina in the process.

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Given the relative lack of talent on her side — Delle Donne accounted for 38.8 percent of Delaware’s scoring with her baskets — that stands as one of the sport’s most impressive individual showcases.

Sabrina Ionescu

(Getty Images)

Sabrina Ionescu

Much like Clark, Ionescu’s rise captured the nation’s interest. During her four-year tenure in Oregon, Ionescu became a basketball celebrity. She won two Wooden Awards during her time with the Ducks, gaining a reputation for triple-doubles and parking-lot triples in the process.

Ionescu wasn’t quite as prolific as some of her contemporaries, but she opted to let her presence be felt in other parts of the game, delivering inch-perfect dimes to teammates Satou Sabally, Sedona Prince and others.

MORE: Key stats to know in Clark vs. Ionescu debate

Oregon never captured a national title during Ionescu’s time with the program, but it came pretty close — the Ducks fell to UConn in 2017, eventual national champions Notre Dame in 2018 and eventual national champions Baylor in 2019. Her senior season came to a sudden close after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Ducks finished the campaign with just two losses, earning the No. 2 ranking in that year’s Final AP Poll.

Oh, and it’s Ionescu — not Clark — who is the sport’s all-time leader in triple-doubles. She racked up 26 such performances in her college career, nine more than Clark, who is second all-time. Two of those came under the glow of March Madness, as well.

While 15 players have notched triple-doubles in the NCAA Tournament, only two of them — Ionescu and Stanford’s Nicole Powell — did so on multiple occasions.

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