Caitlin Clark’s brilliant season was over, and Geno Auriemma wanted to make sure he told the Iowa guard something before she left the Alamodome court in San Antonio.
Clark and the Hawkeyes were eliminated by UConn, 92-72, in Saturday’s NCAA tournament regional semifinal. It was a March run that the Hawkeyes had believed in from the beginning, knowing they had plenty of doubters.
Clark, the Big Ten’s freshman of the year and the nation’s leading scorer, had a lot to do with that run, and Auriemma had some words for her.
“He said, ‘What you've done for Iowa this season really has been something special, you have a bright future,’” Clark said. “To hear him say that to me really meant something. To take the time to wave me down and talk to me obviously meant a lot and I'm very thankful for that.”
What Clark did this season was special. What the Hawkeyes did — winning 20 games, reaching the Big Ten tournament championship game, reaching the second weekend for the second consecutive NCAA tournament — was something that nobody thought of when the season started.
“I don't think it really changed our minds just because we've always believed in each other,” Clark said. “That's the reason I came here, because there was a true belief we were going to make the Final Four someday. We didn't say we were going to do it in my first year. We knew it was going to be a process, we had to put all the pieces together. To see what we did this year with nobody believing in us, we believed in ourselves, everybody in the locker room, the coaches, the girls, we just kept believing. We had some tough losses but went back to work every single day and wanted to get better. I think that really showed at the end of the season, through the Big Ten tournament, obviously the NCAA tournament. To get to where we got is really something special. Obviously a lot to be proud of this season.
“Obviously we're disappointed with the outcome today, but it's good to look back and see what we did this season.”
It’s only going to get better.
Which is why Lisa Bluder wanted to fast-forward as soon as possible.
“I'm just disappointed I don't get to go to practice tomorrow,” Bluder said. “I'm really disappointed that they don't get to do that with this group of women. They have been amazing all year long.”
Every Hawkeye who played in Saturday’s game was either a freshman, sophomore, or junior. Iowa’s starting lineup consisted of Clark, sophomores McKenna Warnock, Gabbie Marshall, and Kate Martin, and junior Monika Czinano.
Czinano was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and averaged 19.3 points per game, leading the nation in field-goal percentage at 66.9 percent.
Warnock averaged 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds, Marshall was second on the team with 57 3-pointers, Martin averaged seven points per game.
And then there was Clark, the nation’s scoring leader at 26.6 points per game. She set a program freshman record for scoring at 799 points, tied for the national lead with 7.2 assists per game, and was second nationally in 3-pointers per game.
The Hawkeyes bring back every key reserve, and add a recruiting class that is ranked among the top 25 nationally.
“We have other people to this puzzle,” Bluder said. “That's what's so fun, is we have the anchors in Caitlin and Monika, but we've got a lot of good pieces around that puzzle, too.”
Bluder has never been one to shy away from high expectations. If she has a good team, she’s willing to embrace all that goes with it.
“The expectations should be extremely high,” she said. “I mean, nobody else expected much of our team this year, but we did. We're the most important people in that locker room that believed in each other, knew that we could have a special year. Moving forward, that's just going to get better and better.
“Our goal is we want to be in a Final Four. We want to take Iowa back to a Final Four. That's where the direction that we're trying to go, that we will go.”
UConn is the measuring stick among the elites in women’s basketball. The Hawkeyes kept pace with the Huskies until the closing minutes, a sign of how close they were, and a sign of work to be done.
This team didn’t get the benefit of a normal offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was a learning curve early in the season.
The pieces snapped together at the right time.
Clark set a particularly high standard, a highly-touted recruit who stayed in her home state to build a contender.
“I think for this team, it's only up from here,” she said. “So I know a lot of little girls dream about going to all those blue bloods, but I think playing for your home state is really something special. Creating something is really special. That's my goal here. I have three years left to do a lot of special things. I think for this team, we're so young, we can put in so much more work, improve in so many areas, it should be fun down the stretch for us, for sure.”
Bluder was already thinking of next season when she left the press conference podium.
“Congratulations on a good season,” the moderator said. “Look forward to seeing you next year.”
“Thank you,” Bluder said. “I do, too.”
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