Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrates after defeating LSU in an Elite Eight round college basketball game during the NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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 Caitlin Clark doesn’t want to think about it. Or doesn’t want to talk about it. That will come later. Probably much later.

Yes, the Iowa star sees the packed stands. Hears the pop in the crowd whenever she drops in another 3-pointer from the logo. Senses the throng of media around her. Doesn’t need to be reminded that her name has been trending pretty much everywhere over four months that have transformed her life and, in some ways, her sport.

The reality is the leading all-time scorer in NCAA Division I history envisioned some of this. A year ago after a painful loss to LSU in the national title game, Clark’s lone focus was finding a way back.

One paradigm-shifting season later, that moment arrived Sunday.

And while it ended just the same way last year’s final against LSU did — with Clark and the Hawkeyes walking off the floor amid confetti that fell for others as South Carolina celebrated its second title in three years — she tried to keep it in perspective.

Yes, she wanted to win. Badly. And she played like it, particularly during a first quarter in which she poured in 18 points, a record for most points in a quarter in an NCAA final. Yet the deep and relentless Gamecocks wore Clark and the Hawkeyes down. She finished with 30 in all before checking out with 20 seconds to go, receiving a long, loud ovation and a hug from coach Lisa Bluder.

There were no tears. Not publicly anyway. Instead, there was an appreciation for a remarkable journey few deemed possible when she arrived on campus four years ago.

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“The emotions will probably hit me over the next couple days,” Clark said. “I don’t have much time to sit around and sulk and be upset. I don’t think that’s what I’m about either. Yeah, I’m sad we lost this game, but I’m also so proud of myself, I’m so proud of my teammates, I’m so proud of this program. There’s a lot to be proud of.”Clark’s impact

The evidence of how far Clark and women’s college basketball have come has been everywhere over the last month, nowhere more so than at a Final Four laden with star power both on the court and in the stands.

The arena was nearly full when Clark’s now iconic No. 22 made its way onto the floor for Iowa’s open practice on Saturday. Jogging out to meet her teammates in a black jersey, shorts and socks, she casually sank a 3-pointer from the wing the first time she touched the ball, a splash through the net that was met with an audible volume spike.

It was that way over the course of 50 mostly informal minutes. The cameras in the arena never wandered too far. The crowd never really went silent. It never really does when Clark is involved.

It’s been that way for a while now. She has navigated it all with an uncommon polish, welcoming the spotlight if only because it gives her the power to point it in whatever direction she chooses.

Clark doesn’t view herself as a one of one but a part of a burgeoning ecosystem within women’s sports. Sure, a record 14.2 million tuned in to watch Iowa’s win over UConn on Friday night. She doesn’t view it as a one-off.

“I think you see it across the board, whether it’s softball, whether it’s gymnastics, volleyball,” Clark said. “People want to watch. It’s just when they’re given the opportunity, the research and the facts show that people love it.”

And they love Clark in particular, a full-circle moment for Clark she never saw coming. As a kid she remembers being part of the “Jimmer-Mania” that surrounded former BYU sharpshooter Jimmer Fredette.

Now she’s the one with kids in the stands wearing T-shirts in her likeness. She’s the one who has created a fiefdom of sorts, selling out basketball games wherever she laces up her black-and-yellow Nikes. It’s all a bit strange, if only because this was never her intention.

Growing up she dreamed of helping Iowa chase down the women’s basketball powers that be. Now she and the Hawkeyes have elbowed their way among the sport’s elite. That was always the goal, not all that has surprisingly come with it: the commercials, the name-drops from hoops royalty like LeBron James and Steph Curry and the way she’s helped make women’s basketball accessible to an audience that long considered it an afterthought if it considered it at all.

It can be dizzying. She has tried, however, to keep it in perspective, stressing whenever she can that this thing — whatever it is — is hardly just about her. It’s about those who came before and those who will come after.

It’s a group that is rapidly expanding.

As Clark and the Hawkeyes went through a walk-through that doubled as a celebration for how far they’ve come, a young girl held a sign that said “I used to play soccer, now I hoop.” She’s hardly alone.

“I genuinely believe every time that Caitlin breaks a record or comes off a game, there are thousands of boys and girls out shooting and wanting to be 22,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Thousands.”What’s next

The original is ready to cede the stage — at least at this level — to others. It’s a moment Clark knows is coming, even though she’s made it a point to not get ahead of herself. Getting too caught up in the last-ness of everything would take too much energy from the task at hand.

“I know what’s next is soon,” she said Sunday. “But at the same time, I’m not blind to the fact that I need to enjoy this, I need to soak this in.”

The WNBA draft, where Clark is expected to be taken first overall by the Indiana Fever, awaits on April 15, little more than a week away. Then maybe some time with Team USA before the Paris Olympics.

It’s been a whirlwind. It will be a whirlwind. There will be time to reflect down the road. Sunday marked the end of one part of her life. Next week begins the start of another. She’s hopeful the people that made their way into the tent stick around for what’s to come.

“I don’t really get offended when people say I never watched women’s basketball before,” she 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.”

People that watched to root for her. People that watched to root against her. People that watched out of curiosity. People that watched out of wonder.

Clark doesn’t really care how or why they came along for the ride. It simply matters that they did, and that means more than any net-cutting ceremony ever could.

“The way people are not only showing up, but cheering about the game and invested in the game, they understand the game,” she said. “They know what’s going on. They’re passionate about it. To me, that’s the coolest thing.”

That’s the Caitlin Clark thing.

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