Caitlin Clark’s Iowa legacy will last even without March Madness title: ‘So much to be proud of’

CLEVELAND — At the end, in the moments after her iconic Iowa career ended on Sunday at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Caitlin Clark could hold her head high with an unwavering belief that you don’t have to win a championship to be a champion, or to be remembered as one.

The confetti fell on the other team again, the trophy was hoisted by South Carolina this time, the empty walk off the floor to the losing locker room belonged to her and Iowa again.

Another sad ending for Caitlin Clark, the 87-75 loser, and for all the young girls who littered the arena in their 22 jerseys. And not so young girls. And for all of Iowa.

Win or lose, it would have been time to say thanks for the memories, because there were more memories than tears confronting the sobering reality that there will be no more memories for a proud Iowa girl to make with her dream team and for her dream school and fan base.

“So much to be proud of, so much to hold our heads high about. … Yeah it stinks, but life goes on,” Caitlin Clark said.

Some will honor her as the GOAT as the all-time college basketball scoring leader, women and men. Some will hesitate, because she came in second to LSU last season and second to South Carolina now and leaves without that precious championship, just as Larry Bird left Indiana State in 1979.

Caitlin Clark walks off the court after Iowa lost to South Carolina in the national championship. Getty Images
Caitlin Clark said there’s “so much to be proud of” from her Iowa career. USA TODAY NETWORK

But the impact she has made on the women’s game won’t soon be forgotten. She breathed oxygen into her sport that has captured the attention of television networks and viewers and corporate sponsors. You couldn’t take your eyes off her because any moment could be a great moment … a great shot seemingly from her native West Des Moines, or a great pass that must have brought a smile to Magic Johnson’s face.

How many young girls have been picking up a basketball telling themselves: I CAN BE CAITLIN CLARK!? I WANT TO BE CAITLIN CLARK!?

“We’re changing the game. We’re attracting more people to it,” Clark said.

Kudos to her for how she embraced being an inspirational role model with grace and class every step of the way.

With 20.2 seconds left, Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder called for her to leave the court for the last time in her No. 22, while at the same time doing something for a player who will remember the moment forever, when Bluder found the time and the place for senior guard Molly Davis to play in the national championship game after she had missed the entire tournament with a leg injury.

The South Carolina fans were chanting “USC, USC, USC.”

Caitlin Clark hit five 3-pointers during Iowa’s loss in the national championship. Getty Images
Caitlin Clark scored 30 points in Iowa’s loss to South Carolina. USA TODAY NETWORK

Clark was greeted with hugs from teammates and coaches on the bench. In a matter of seconds, she joined the line to shake hands with the victors.

South Carolina was too big and too deep and too much team for Caitlin Clark to overcome.

“Maybe we weren’t always the most skilled. Maybe we weren’t always the tallest. Maybe we weren’t always the fastest, but we just believed,” she said.

She had come out on fire, scored 18 first-quarter points, electrified the Iowa crowd, finished with 30 on 10-for-28 shooting, but just 1-for-7 from 3 in the second half. Not a dream ending. But a dream career.

“There’s not a regret in my mind of how things went,” she said. “I’ll be able to sleep every night even though I never won a national championship … I don’t sit and sulk about the things that never happened. My mom always taught me keep your head high, be proud of everything that you accomplished. I think I’m still hungry for a lot more, too.”

Next week she will be the No. 1 overall pick of the WNBA draft and the Indiana Fever, and make her teammates there better just as she made her Hawkeyes teammates better.

Caitlin Clark will likely become the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft with her Iowa career over. Getty Images

“I’m proud of the way I carried myself, it’s certainly been hard at times to always be in the spotlight and have everybody’s eyeballs on you,” she said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

A young girl before the game had carried a sign that read: I’m not a Swiftie I’m a Clarkie.

“I hope I showed everybody like how fun women’s basketball is, how fun women’s sports are, and brought joy to a lot of families whether you’re a young girl or a young boy, or an older man, an older woman … people my grandma’s age absolutely love our team,” Clark said. “I think we’re impacted so many people from young to old.”

She sure did.

Thanks for the memories, Caitlin Clark.

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