Despite Title Game Loss, Caitlin Clark's Legacy Is Indisputable

Clark never won the big one with Iowa, but her impact on women's basketball is undeniable—and is just getting started.
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark finished her college career as the all-time leading scorer in Division I history.
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark finished her college career as the all-time leading scorer in Division I history. / Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Win or lose, this was going to be the last game of Caitlin Clark’s career as an Iowa Hawkeye. 

Before Iowa took on the South Carolina Gamecocks in the women’s national championship game Sunday, Clark was asked a lot about her legacy. In the grand scheme, she said winning a championship was not vital to cement her place as one of the best college basketball players of all time. She didn’t want her four years in Iowa City to come down to just a couple of games, she wanted it to be about the people she inspired and the way she carried herself. 

That didn’t mean she didn’t want to win. 

“It's really hard to win these things. I think I probably know that better than most people by now,” Clark said after the Hawkeye’s 87–75 loss to the Gamecocks on Sunday. “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.”

In the first quarter, it seemed like Clark may be on her way to getting that title. She racked up 18 points, 11 of them coming in a span of about a minute. Clark wasn’t going to let this game finish without making her mark on it, tying her points total from the UConn Final Four game in the first half with 21 and finishing with 30. 

But her mark was made long before tipoff. Thousands of Iowa fans flocked to Cleveland this weekend, contributing to sellouts on both game days and filling the stands with No. 22 jerseys. Every time Clark touched the ball, the crowd was loud—I’m talking the you-think-your-ears-are-bleeding kind of loud that happens when 18,000 people scream in unison indoors while one of Clark’s patented threes falls. 

The noise was mind-numbing for everyone except the players. Clark and her teammates claimed all weekend they never really noticed it until the games were over. And even then, a different kind of noise takes place—all of the commentary on whether Clark is overrated, if the officials are favoring her and debating if she is worthy of GOAT status. She didn’t seem to let that noise affect her either. 

Somehow, even just moments removed from losing in the national title game for the second straight year, Clark seemed to be filled with more gratitude than defeat. And as the spotlight has shone on her with unmatched intensity over the last year, her maturity has been essential to the way she’s carried herself not only during countless interviews but on the court as well. 

“I think Caitlin Clark handled the pressure and weight so much, so much, so much better than I think she got credit for, and she gets credit for a lot,” Iowa assistant head coach Jan Jensen said. “I don't get on social media a lot, but I feel like I got my ire up a few times when they would be really on her—didn't think she was that good, didn't have a national title, but that kid delivered every night. I don't know if we'll ever see anyone like her for a long time.” 

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said managing those emotions has not always been Clark’s strength. When she first started as a Hawkeye, it was “all fire and no love.” Her perfectionism would get in the way and that fire was not always communicated well with her teammates. Learning to control her passion is what has turned her into a leader, one that brought her team to back-to-back title games.

“I definitely think that's the biggest way I've matured and grown over the course of my four years is to just never get rattled by things that don't go your way,” Clark said. “Basketball isn't a perfect game. That's what's going to happen. That's honestly what I'm the most proud of.”

Iowa Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder and guard Ciatlin Clark
Bluder and Clark talk during practice at the Final Four in Cleveland. / Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register / USA

Even without being perfect, Clark rewrote numerous records this year. She finished with the most points—3,951—in Division I basketball history, men’s or women’s. She is the only woman in D-I to have more than 3,000 points and 1,000 assists, finishing with 1,144 assists. Her 548 three-pointers are another D-I record, and this season’s 201 threes and 1,234 points are single-season D-I records. 

Now that the ink has officially dried on those records, it’s time to wipe them clean for the next step in Clark’s career. While her college points total won’t matter as a pro, what many in the WNBA are hoping she can bring with her are eyeballs to the tube: ESPN broke viewership records one game after another as Iowa progressed in the tournament. The fact that there won’t be a ton of down time until people can see Clark play again could be key to that. 

Unlike a lot of other leagues, the turnaround from college to pro is incredibly quick for women’s basketball players. Clark played in the title game on April 7. The WNBA draft, where she is the presumed No. 1 pick for the Indiana Fever, is April 15. Training camps start April 28 and the regular season begins May 14. And let’s not forget a possible mid-summer trip to Paris as Clark was invited to USA Basketball’s Olympic training camp from April 3–5 (though she was a bit busy during that time).

After Iowa outdueled UConn in the Final Four, Mercury Phoenix veteran Diana Taurasi gave a rather blunt warning of what’s awaiting Clark in the pros. “Reality is coming…You look super human playing against 18-year-olds, but you're going to come play with some grown women that have been playing professional basketball for a long time,” Taurasi said on ESPN. “I’m not saying that’s not going to translate, because when you’re good at what you do, you’re just going to get better. But there is going to be a transition period where you’re going to have to give yourself some grace as a rookie.” 

Iowa fans likely aren’t ready for this era to end, Bluder especially. “Can she still change her mind? Is that possible?” the coach joked. “I don't know. I would like that very much.” And regardless of what you personally think of her, her impact on the sport is undeniable. “I'd like to think the biggest impact was that a lot of people got inspired—young, old, men and women,” Jensen said. “Probably some cats and dogs out there too. You never know. I feel like I've seen dogs with little Caitlin [No.] 22 jerseys on.” 

But for now, the book of Caitlin Clark’s collegiate career—one that is bound to be referenced for many years to come—is over. Thankfully for us, the sequel will begin in just a week’s time.

Kristen Nelson


Kristen Nelson is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated focused on women's sports. She also enjoys covering hockey and previously wrote for