Caitlin Clark, not unbeaten South Carolina, will be lasting memory of season

CLEVELAND — Caitlin Clark wanted the title. Anyone who plays this game would have.

She didn’t need it, though.

Her legacy was secured long ago. When people recall this year’s tournament years from now, they will remember Clark’s logo 3s and the scoring records she set. (Not to be confused with the ones she set during the regular season.) They’ll remember the blockbuster ratings and the electric games Clark and Iowa played against LSU and UConn and South Carolina. They’ll remember how this was the tournament that put to rest the notion that women’s sports are somehow “less than” and the absurd claim that no one cares about them.

They’ll remember Clark and her impact. Far more, even, than the South Carolina team that actually did win this year’s title. Becoming only the 10th team to finish the year unbeaten in the process.

"There's not a regret in my mind of how things went," Clark said after Iowa came up short in the title game for a second year in a row, losing this one to overall No. 1 seed South Carolina 87-75. "I'll be able to sleep every night even though I never won a national championship.

"That's the thing about everything I've done, there's so much to be proud of. I don't sit and sulk about the things that never happened."

Caitlin Clark leaves the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor after her final collegiate game. "There's not a regret in my mind of how things went," Clark said.
Caitlin Clark leaves the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor after her final collegiate game. "There's not a regret in my mind of how things went," Clark said.

Because what did happen? What was she able to accomplish? That will affect the lives of little girls, and little boys, long after Clark is done playing. Women's sports, and the athletes who play them, finally have the attention and the spotlight they deserve, and they aren't going backward.

"I want to utilize this opportunity to thank Caitlin for what she's done for women's basketball. Her shoulders were heavy and getting a lot of eyeballs on our game," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "And sometimes as a young person, it can be a bit much, but I thought she handled it with class. I hope that every step of the ladder of success that she goes, she's able to elevate whatever room she's in."

Staley, who's in the Hall of Fame as a player and will be there soon as a coach, too, had said before the game she thought Clark needed a title to be in the GOAT conversation.

But debates about GOATs and where players rank are subjective and, ultimately, futile because everyone has a different measure of what defines great. Or what’s more important. Is it titles? Scoring? Dominance? You can ask 10 different people and get 10 different answers.

But no one can deny that Clark changed the game, and that is how she’ll be remembered.

"I don't really get offended when people say I never watched women's basketball before. I think, one, you're a little late to the party," Clark said, drawing laughter. "But, two, that's cool. We're changing the game. We're attracting more people to it."

Of course it would have been a storybook ending for her to cap her college career with a title. She and her Iowa teammates did everything they could.

They came out firing, just as they did against LSU in the Elite Eight. Kate Martin knocked down a 3, Clark ripped off 13 points in less than two minutes and before the stragglers had a chance to get to their seats, Iowa was up 20-9 on the overall No. 1 seed.

That 11-point deficit? It was South Carolina’s largest of the season.

But the Gamecocks didn’t come into the game unbeaten for no reason. Freshman Tessa Johnson made three field goals in a row between the end of the first quarter and the start of the second, and when Kamilla Cardoso made a free throw to convert a three-point play, South Carolina had erased the entire deficit and the score was tied.

The frenetic pace of the game seemed to take its toll on Clark and Iowa, and they fell behind by as much as 14 early in the fourth quarter. Clark and the Hawkeyes simply didn’t have the size, or the depth, to keep pace.

"South Carolina is so good. There's only so much you can do," Clark said. "(Kamilla) Cardoso has 17 rebounds. They have 51 as a team. We have 29. Hard to win a basketball game like that. You've basically got to shoot perfect at that point."

They didn't, shooting less than 40% for the game. After scoring 18 points in the first quarter, an NCAA Tournament record for a single quarter, Clark had 12 on 5-of-20 shooting the rest of the way.

The Hawkeyes never quit, however. A 3 by Clark and another by Gabbie Marshall pared the lead to 76-70. Sydney Affolter converted a three-point play to keep Iowa within striking distance, 80-75, with 4:13 left.

But they couldn’t get any closer.

"That was a huge advantage because I think they played nine people in double figures. We had six. Just to have those extra fouls and extra legs — they didn't have to play too hard," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "We did score pretty well. We scored 20 more points than other people do against South Carolina. ... But, yeah, to be able to have all those fresh legs on Caitlin was really tough."

Clark said she knows the emotions of losing in the national title game for a second year, of playing her final game at Iowa, will hit her over the next few days. Yet she and Martin were more pragmatic rather than heartbroken after the game, recognizing they still won even for losing.

"When I think about women's basketball going forward, obviously it's just going to continue to grow, whether it's atthe WNBA level, whether it's at the college level. Everybody sees it. Everybody knows. Everybody sees theviewership numbers," Clark said. "When you're given an opportunity, women's sports thrives. I think that's been the coolest thing for me on this journey. ... It just continues to get better and better and better. That's never going to stop.

"When you continue to give them the platform, things like this are just going to continue to happen."

And Clark made that happen. Others have had a hand, too, Staley and South Carolina included.

The Gamecocks are 109-3 with two national championships over the last three seasons. Staley has won three titles in seven tournaments. With the young talent South Carolina has — if you didn't come away from Sunday's game awed by freshman Tessa Johnson, you must have been watching golf — it is verging on Tennessee and UConn dynasty territory.

But it is Clark who's been the architect of this movement in women's sports.

"She has raised the excitement of our sport," Bluder said. "She has done amazing things to grow our game."

South Carolina won the national title this year. What Clark won was so much bigger.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark: She didn't need title to be big winner this season