Why Caitlin Clark doesn’t need a national championship to enter GOAT debate for NCAA women’s basketball

CLEVELAND – Iowa’s Caitlin Clark smiled through the questions. She shared a laugh with teammate Kate Martin, and she drew a few laughs from reporters at her college press conference. Clark tugged at her jersey.

This is not easy. Clark didn’t win a national championship at Iowa.

No. 1 South Carolina won 87-75 to complete a perfect 38-0 season at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Sunday. No. 1 Iowa finished 34-5 and lost the women’s national championship game for the second straight season. 

Of course, there just has to be a GOAT discussion – the everyday sports consumption exercises that fill TV and social media. LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan. Tom Brady vs. any NFL quarterback ever. In this case, the fact Clark forced the GOAT debate in women’s basketball to a wide audience automatically puts her in that conversation.

“I don’t really get offended when people say, ‘I’ve never watched women’s basketball before,’” Clark said. “I think, one, you’re a little late to the party, yes. But, two, that’s cool. We’re changing the game. We’re attracting more people to it.”

That drew the first laugh.

Our take? Clark did not need to win a national championship to be in those GOAT conversations in women’s basketball, no matter what UConn legend Breanna Stewart – who had four as a player – or South Carolina coach Dawn Staley – who now has three as a coach – said before Sunday’s game.

MORE: Caitlin Clark’s record-breaking career by the numbers

Not that Clark did not try. She worked through her pre-game routine, launching what had to be a few hundred 3-pointers across all the spots with the South Carolina team at her back. Clark was back in the black-and-gold uniform from the Final Four matchup with the Gamecocks last season – that game where she poured in 41 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a 77-73 upset.

The rematch started out a lot like that. Iowa had a 7-0 lead on South Carolina before Clark took her first 3-pointer in the first quarter, which she buried after a between-the-legs dribble and step-back on South Carolina’s Bree Hall for a double-digit lead.

Clark hit two more 3s as part of a stretch where she scored 13 points in one minute and 54 seconds of game time. She had 18 points in the first quarter, and the Hawkeyes led by seven points.

This was the show that changed women’s basketball the last two seasons. 

Record television ratings followed Iowa while Clark reset the NCAA scoring mark, which she finished with 3,951 points. Clark – with the logo 3-pointers, three-quarter court passes and never-back-down personality – was all of that.

“I think the biggest thing is, for us, this team came along at a really good time, whether it was social media, whether it was NIL, whether it was our games being nationally televised,” Clark said. “We’ve played on Fox, NBC, CBS, ESPN – you go down the list, and we’ve been on every national television channel.”

South Carolina, of course, was the perfect team. Forward Kamilla Cardoso scored 15 points with 17 rebounds. Tessa Johnson came off the bench and scored 19 points. South Carolina led at halftime and threatened to make it a blowout in the fourth quarter before Clark led one last comeback attempt. 

Caitlin Clark

(Getty Images)

You can hear that. Clark made a step-back 3-pointer with 7:05 left in the fourth quarter, and Gabbie Marshall knocked down another 3-pointer on the next possession. That is when the decibel level reached its peak at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Few knew at the time Clark would not score again. The Gamecocks closed – as national champions do – with what guard Raven Johnson called a “revenge tour” afterward. Staley, however, took a different tone.

“I want to not utilize this opportunity to thank Caitlin for what she’s done for women’s basketball,” Staley said. “Her shoulders were heavy and getting a lot of eyeballs on our game. And sometimes as a young person, it can be a bit much, but I thought she handled it with class. I hope that every step of the ladder of success that she goes, she’s able to elevate whatever room she’s in.

Staley would know. She had 28 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three assists for No. 1 Virginia in a 70-67 loss to No. 1 Tennessee in the 1991 women’s national championship game. Staley helped usher in growth of the game with the 1996 Olympic Team and WNBA.

Clark had that national championship experience twice. She scored 30 points in last year’s 102-85 loss to No. 3 LSU in the national championship game. She scored 30 points against the Gamecocks on Sunday. Clark finished 492 points in the NCAA tournament, which broke the record of 479 set by Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw. 

Most points in NCAA women’s basketball championship game
  Player Points Year
1. Sheryl Swoopes, Texas Tech 47 1993
2. Arike Ogunbowale, Notre Dame 31 2019
3. Danielle Adams, Texas A&M 30 2011
  Caitlin Clark, Iowa 30 2023
  Caitlin Clark, Iowa 30 2024
5. Dena Head, Tennessee 28 1991
  Dawn Staley, Virginia 28 1991
  Katie Smith, Ohio State 28 1993
  Ruth Riley, Notre Dame 28 2001
  Diana Taurasi, UConn 28 2003

“I think the biggest thing is it’s really hard to win these things,” Clark said. “I think I probably know that better than most people by now. To be so close twice, it definitely hurts, but at the same time, we were right there. We battled. We took down some really great teams to get back to this point. It’s something that’s really hard to do.” 

Inside the Iowa locker room, Iowa associate coach Jan Jensen approached the GOAT question with what should be the right take here.

“She’s a little bit different in the GOAT status because everyone was paying attention to her and our team,” Jansen said. “Yes, South Carolina, they’re amazing. All hats off. She shot a place that no one really makes it from. That’s the difference.

“I just don’t usually engage because she’s my GOAT,” she said. “It should be a fun debate, but I would like for her to be celebrated more than, ‘See, she couldn’t do it.’ That’s the thing. It’s not tennis. It’s not golf. That is when those conversations are hard.”

Clark did not win a national championship, but Jansen knows what those memories of Clark will be for those watched.

​​”Shoot from the logo? Check. Throw an incredible pass. Check. Argue with the ref. Check. Sometimes you were like, ‘Oh my gosh, there are 16,000 cameras here and we’re on the road,’” Jansen said.

Clark was given the curtain call with 20.2 seconds remaining. She watched South Carolina players huddle on the sideline and celebrate. Clark waved to the Iowa fans on the way into the tunnel.

MORE: What’s next for Caitlin Clark after Iowa?

Team USA Basketball and the WNBA Draft are part of her next chapter, and Clark’s career is far from over. She took one last question about what she passed onto the next generation of women’s basketball fans – not the ones just catching up.

“I think as a young girl, just have confidence, a young boy, have confidence in yourself and confidence in whatever you want to be,” Clark said. “I think that was the thing that my parents instilled in me from a young age. 

“They never told me no,” Clark said before delivering one last zinger. “They told me no about other things, but not about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be and the goals I wanted to chase after.”

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