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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    It's a circus atmosphere when Caitlin Clark plays. And the Iowa star is savoring every bit of it

    Iowa guard Caitlin Clark signs autographs after an NCAA college basketball game against Northern Iowa, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Iowa won 94-53. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
    Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives past Drake guard Anna Brown (24) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

    Estero, Fla. — They start showing up an hour or more before games. They've got their faces painted, they're carrying signs, they're wearing No. 22 jerseys. Some are old. Some are young. Men, women, boys, girls, they're all there.

    Officially, they come to watch No. 4 Iowa.

    More specifically, they come to watch Caitlin Clark.

    It is perhaps the best circus in women's basketball. All eyes are on Clark — the reigning Associated Press national player of the year and someone on pace to win the national scoring title for a record third time — from the moment she steps onto the floor for warm-ups to the time she waves good-bye when the game ends.

    Her game has brought fame (nearly 800,000 followers on Instagram), fortune (Nike and State Farm are among her many endorsement deals) and she's on pace to become the leading scorer in Division I women's history later this season.

    "The way people have on our jerseys, the way people have on Iowa clothes, it's just not the same for every other program," Clark said. "So, I think for me, it's 'just don't let it overwhelm you. Don't let the moment pass you by.' Living in the now is super important. It's really special.

    "These are going to be some of the best moments of my life that I get to share with my best friends, as a kid who's 21 years old in college. I play this game because I love it. I play because it's fun. And when I play that way, that's what allows me to be as good as I am."

    Great is more accurate. A generational great, probably even more so.

    With 2,954 points entering Saturday's game with Bowling Green for the Hawkeyes (7-1), Clark is probably two games away from reaching 3,000. At her current average of around 30 points per game, she's on pace to catch Kelsey Plum for the all-time Division I women's mark of 3,527 by the end of February.

    Plum, an Olympic 3x3 gold medalist and two-time WNBA champion with the Las Vegas Aces, knows what's coming Clark's way. She experienced it a few years back when she was at Washington and closing in on Jackie Stiles' record.

    "I feel like people started caring less about the game and more about just the individual points," Plum said. "It was tough for me because I felt like I lost a little bit of my identity and it ultimately led to a tough transition into the (WNBA) because the expectations were so high. So, if anything, I'd try to send her as much compassion and love as I can and I hope the people around her are checking in with her … because it's going to be tough to feel like you're just playing basketball."

    Clark is on pace to become the first player in Division I history — men's or women's — with 3,000 points and 1,000 assists. Reaching 1,000 rebounds isn't totally out of the question. Pete Maravich's all-time Division I scoring record of 3,667 points is within reach. And come March, an Iowa team that lost to LSU in the national championship game last season will likely be a favorite to win it all this time.

    "I mean, she's the national player of the year," Florida Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko said. "She has Steph Curry mentality. She's somebody who will share the ball, but she is somebody that's aggressive looking for opportunities. She's probably the toughest person to guard in college basketball right now. … It's quite a challenge."

    Curry raves about Clark. Chris Paul follows her on Instagram. So does tennis star Frances Tiafoe, women's basketball legend Sue Bird and a slew of other famous people. She's a three-time gold medalist with USA Basketball. She's a full-fledged star already, with the game to match.

    Purdue Fort Wayne lost to Iowa last week in Fort Myers. When it was over, Mastadons coach Maria Marchesano acknowledged "it's cool to be part of a game like this."

    "You know, she sees things on the court before it ever happens," Marchesano said. "She's a one of one player."

    The awe factor isn't just for opponents. Iowa takes pains to make sure it doesn't fall victim as well.

    Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder calls it "the Michael Jordan effect," where teammates might just stand around and watch Clark dominate. Clark plays the biggest role in combating that by being a willing passer and making sure teammates are involved.

    "To me, it's managing everybody else too," Bluder said. "Understanding that she's a special player, and that doesn't mean that you're less valuable. It doesn't mean that she's more valuable to us. It means that we're all just really fortunate. We all have roles and we all play our own role. And I think our team does a really good job of buying into that."

    Last season's NCAA title game against Reese and LSU averaged nearly 10 million viewers, a record for women's basketball. The Gulf Coast Showcase also set attendance records, and while having Florida Gulf Coast there (its campus is just a couple miles from the tournament site) helped, Clark was the reason why most people made the trip.

    It was 3,000 or 4,000 fans in the stands this past weekend to see the Clark show. It'll be 15,000 fans in Iowa City when Clark and the Hawkeyes return home on Saturday. The crowds will be big the rest of the way.

    Usually, Clark gives the people what they want — 30-footers, bounce passes on the run, lots of emotion and, more often than not, a wave after another win. She is going to savor it all with hopes of delivering that national title that was just one game from her grasp last spring.

    "Just enjoy every single moment, soak it in and know no moment is ever too big," Clark said. "I think our team really steps up when the lights kind of shine the brightest."

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