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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Meet Grace Beyer, the small-school scoring phenom Iowa star Caitlin Clark might never catch

    University Health Sciences and Pharmacy guard Grace Beyer (5) shoots during an NAIA college basketball game against Cottey College Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in St. Louis. On the same night that Caitlin Clark was adding to her NCAA women's basketball scoring record before a packed house in Indiana, and a national audience on television, the Iowa sensation lost ground to the most prolific scorer in her sport. (AP Photo/Jeff Le)

    On the same night Caitlin Clark was adding to her NCAA women's basketball scoring record before a packed house in Indiana, and a national audience on television, the Iowa sensation was losing ground to the most prolific active scorer in her sport.

    In a gymnasium smaller than those of many high schools, where hundreds of fans scattered across sets of retractable bleachers, Grace Beyer was pouring in 40 points for the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in a close loss to Cottey College.

    That pushed the career total for the fifth-year senior to 3,842 points, 249 ahead of Clark, who had scored 24 in the Hawkeyes' loss to the Hoosiers last Thursday night. Beyer added another 32 points on Saturday in a win over Hannibal-LaGrange, breaking Miriam Walker-Samuels' record for an NAIA school and moving her into fifth place in college basketball history.

    Men or women, NCAA or NAIA, regardless of division.

    “What she's doing," said Beyer’s coach, Jillian Lipman-Segura, "is just remarkable. She makes everything look so easy."

    The contrast is stark in the way Clark and Beyer have been chasing history in the twilight of their careers.

    Ever since helping the Hawkeyes reach the national championship game last season, and famously feuding with LSU standout Angel Reese, Clark has become perhaps the most bankable star in the history of the women's college game.

    Fans have lined up for hours all season, often in freezing cold, to watch her make those 30-foot 3-pointers. Tickets went for more than a $1,000 on the secondary market as Clark approached Kelsey Plum's NCAA women's scoring record. And in the era of Name, Image and Likeness legislation that has allowed Clark to monetize her fame, she has popped up in advertisements for everything from State Farm Insurance to Hy-Vee, a supermarket chain headquartered not far from her childhood home in Des Moines.

    As she passed Plum and set her sights on Lynette Woodard's major college record of 3,649 points, set before the days of NCAA women's hoops, Clark's games have become appointment viewing when they are televised on FS1 or streamed on Peacock.

    “It's amazing," Beyer said with a smile, “to be mentioned in the same breath as her.”

    Perhaps that is because her own story is playing out on such a wildly different stage.

    Just like Clark, Beyer grew up with a basketball in her hands, putting up thousands of shots at the local YMCA before and after school. She learned about toughness from playing older brothers Brian and Daniel in the driveway of their Wisconsin home, and how to be a leader while taking Mukwonago High School to the state championship game as a freshman.

    And just like Clark, the Division I coaches came calling. They saw in her all the same traits that Iowa coach Lisa Bluder saw in her future phenom, right down to the desire it takes to play basketball at the college level.

    Yet that is where Clark and Beyer abruptly diverged.

    Beyer's grandfather had lived with her family as she grew up, but as he grew older, he began having trouble managing his medications. Beyer stepped in to help, learning everything she could about the drugs and how they interacted. That piqued in her a desire to study pharmacy, a burdensome academic pathway that typically requires a four-year undergraduate degree in something such as biology or chemistry before at least two more years spent earning a doctorate.

    Many coaches had been recruiting Beyer since the seventh grade, including several from Division I schools, yet they blanched when she told them about her academic goals. They thought there was no way Beyer could juggle that course load and still focus on basketball, so the phone calls and text messages and interest slowly dried up.

    “I had a lot of conversations with my parents,” Beyer said, “and they urged me to prepare for the 40 years of my life rather than the four years of college. It's kind of a big concept to grasp when you're in high school, but I just knew that I wanted to be happy and have a career in something I'm going to enjoy. And basketball? I'll enjoy that wherever I play.”

    That ended up being a small college in St. Louis whose nickname — Eutectics — is the process of two solids forming a liquid, and whose mascot, Mortarmer McPestle, wears a shock of yellow hair and a white lab coat.

    Odd, yet fitting, for a school that in 2020 renamed itself the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy.

    “Our program is academically rigorous,” Eutectics athletic director Jill Harter said, “and it really takes a special type of athlete to be successful here, because you have to be able to achieve in the classroom in order to be able to excel competitively, too.

    “Grace,” Harter added, "checks both of those boxes.”

    There are no chartered planes at the NAIA level, just mind-numbing bus rides that often last six or more hours. There are no tutors for the women's basketball program, only the academic assistance afforded to any student. And while the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy facilities are pristine, they are nowhere near what a Division I college can offer.

    “But honestly,” Harter said, "if your passion is healthcare and you want to play a sport, why would you go anywhere else?”

    That was the pitch that sold Beyer on a school whose team had gone 19-116 in the five seasons before her arrival.

    With her leading the way, the Eutectics won at least 20 games each of the past two years. The few dozen fans that used to show up at games turned into a few hundred, and people actually began calling the school to ask when Beyer would play next.

    As the wins mounted, so did her scoring total, often in chunks of 40 or more points at a time.

    Beyer had a career-high 59 last year in a game against Columbia, and earlier this season, the 5-foot-8 guard scored 51 of the Eutectics' points in a 69-62 win over William Woods. In all, Beyer has been averaging more than 34 points over her final season of college basketball, while also leading her team in rebounds, steals and assists.

    “There's sometimes we'll beat a team but they'll be like, ‘Oh, Grace didn’t score 30, so it's a win,'” she said, “but it's not a win. You lost. So it's kind of funny how some people's mindsets are different, not even caring about the outcome of the game.”

    At her current pace, Beyer needs six postseason games to chase down the women’s all-college scoring record, set by Pearl Moore with 4,061 points — 3,884 for AIAW-member Francis Marion from 1975-79 and 177 points while at Anderson Junior College.

    The Eutectics open the American Midwest Conference Tournament against Missouri Baptist on Friday night.

    Meanwhile, Beyer continues to watch Clark chase her own milestones from afar. The reigning AP player of the year has 3,617 points after her triple-double in Iowa's win over Illinois on Sunday, and Clark needs 33 points heading into Wednesday's game at Minnesota to break Woodard's major college scoring record.

    In rare moments, Beyer catches herself wondering what it would have been like to play under those bright lights herself. Could she have competed at that level, or had that much success? Would she have been as happy doing it?

    “I definitely don't have any regrets coming here,” she said, “but everyone has those what-if thoughts, you know? What it would have been like if I went to a bigger school. But those are all what-ifs. I'm never going to know how my career would have ended up at a different school. I can only know for sure what I have accomplished here, and what I've accomplished here is not something that anyone can take away from me. I can't have any regrets when I know what I've left behind.”

    University Health Sciences and Pharmacy guard Grace Beyer (5) smiles on the bench during an NAIA college basketball game against Cottey College Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in St. Louis. In a gymnasium smaller than those of many high schools, and where fans numbering in the hundreds sat on sets of retractable bleachers, Grace Byer had poured in 40 points for University Health Sciences Pharmacy in a close loss to Cottey College. (AP Photo/Jeff Le)
    University Health Sciences and Pharmacy guard Grace Beyer, left, sits with her teammates during an NAIA college basketball game against Cottey College Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in St. Louis. Byer scored 40 points for University Health Sciences Pharmacy in a close loss to Cottey College. (AP Photo/Jeff Le)

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