Caitlin Clark fell shy of scoring record, but women's basketball still delivered

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Caitlin Clark fell shy of scoring record, but women's basketball still delivered

LINCOLN, Neb. — Tickets sold out six weeks ago, and fans started lining up six hours before tipoff. Nebraska, like the rest of Big Ten country, was ready for the moment when Caitlin Clark came to town. And with 39 points separating her and the top spot in Division I scoring, 15,042 spectators filled the arena. They did not just expect a show but history, too.

Instead, they got a game and one hell of a finish.

The Cornhuskers turned around their 14-point fourth-quarter deficit by throwing a box-and-1 defense at Clark and No. 2 Iowa, and with the Hawkeyes unable to respond, Clark went from sharpshooter to non-scorer, putting the individual scoring record out of reach and the game in flux. As much of the season (and past four years in Iowa City) has gone, as Clark goes, so too does Iowa.

Nebraska’s 27-10 final quarter was punctuated with a Jaz Shelley triple to give the home team its first lead of the game. It was the kind of heroics we’re all too accustomed to seeing from Clark.

So, on the other end, when Clark launched her own potentially score-tying 3 from the left wing with nine seconds remaining — even amid her mini shooting slump — the entire arena rose and held its breath. She needed 39 points Sunday to eclipse Kelsey Plum’s NCAA women’s basketball career scoring record. Yet even as it seemed evident she might fall short of making history, and even though her previous five shots missed, Caitlin Clark is still Caitlin Clark, after all. Her heroics were expected — from all 15,000 in attendance, whether they were wearing gold or red, on the sideline or in the nosebleeds.

“I never relaxed,” Nebraska coach Amy Williams said of Clark’s final shot. “We’d be foolish to do so. … Anytime it’s a one-possession game and you have Caitlin Clark on your team, there’s a really good chance she’s going to get a good look and they’re going to keep storming back.”

But the shot was off. The record was elusive. Iowa lost 82-79.

After Clark torched the Cornhuskers eight straight times, averaging 35 points per game against them, Nebraska delivered payback in its final regular-season meeting against Iowa and maybe the last game the senior will play in Lincoln. As Nebraska fans rushed the court, Clark was whisked away from the storm. Certainly, among that joy, it wasn’t just that Nebraska had upset the second-ranked team in the country; it was that it had taken down the nation’s best scorer. If Cornhuskers fans are being honest, that second part might someday be the nugget they first tell their grandkids.

Let me tell you about the one time we beat Caitlin Clark …

Clark appeared frustrated in the postgame news conference, saying the record chase hasn’t been a distraction. Teammate Kate Martin looked incredulous at such a suggestion.

But certainly, at least early on, it appeared as though Clark deferred to her teammates when shots and opportunities seemed available. As the game went on, it’s hard to imagine she wasn’t aware of where she stood. She’s a player who knows time and score better than almost anyone and has a photographic memory for plays and possessions. She’s also a math whiz, so subtracting from 39 isn’t that difficult when she’s also calculating shooting percentages and passing angles.

But for Clark, whose competitive and fiery nature is constantly on display, those 39 points were likely more important in the context of Iowa beating Nebraska. Certainly, it would be special to break the record at home Thursday against Michigan. But with more than 20 family members at the game and many relatives in the state of Nebraska, this would’ve been the second-best place to set the record.

Winning would’ve beaten all of that. And Clark usually stops at nothing to win.

Of course, it’s not always in her control. You can’t put this game on Clark for even a second. She scored 31 points and logged 10 assists (to just two turnovers), four steals, two blocks and eight rebounds. She drew 10 fouls, almost as many as the entire Nebraska team.

It says much of Clark’s level of play that other career moments will be included in this game’s footnotes, one that will be remembered as the game in which she didn’t pass Plum. She became just the sixth Division I player to total 1,000 career assists (she stands at 1,005) and the first Division I player to accumulate 3,000-plus career points and 1,000-plus career assists — not the record fans were hoping for, but a historic night, nonetheless. It also marked her 52nd 30-point game. She was two rebounds short of yet another triple-double.

But what Clark likely will remember most is the final scoring margin and the shots that didn’t go in. She’ll remember that her and her team’s mentality weren’t as sharp as required, and ultimately that — not the 8 points that kept her from achieving the record — was what kept Iowa from victory. She’ll likely think that Nebraska, on this night, was simply the better team.

Every Iowa opponent this season has brought its best. Maryland coach Brenda Frese said the Terrapins’ performance (an 8-point loss) proved they were an NCAA Tournament team. Ohio State rose six places in the AP poll after beating the Hawkeyes in overtime. And now Nebraska, a mid-table Big Ten team, will have bragging rights about playing spoiler to Clark’s potential record.

These were the moments Williams mentioned as possibilities to her recruits when she took over the program in 2015. “At some point, we’re going to be able to sell Pinnacle Bank Arena out, we’re going to be playing in front of those types of crowds,” she said.

And now they have … with an asterisk noting it was sold out because of Clark, not the Cornhuskers. The result was aired on a national broadcast, and Nebraska took down the giant. It went blow for blow with an opponent that might win this matchup nine times out of 10, but on this day, Nebraska came out the victor.

For Iowa, it marks a good lesson, one the Hawkeyes have delivered many times in the past few years. You don’t have to be the better team; you just have to have the better 40 minutes.

On Sunday, record chasing or not, those 40 minutes were Nebraska’s. Clark might’ve been the best player on the court by far, but Iowa needs more if it wants to go where the Hawkeyes think they belong. “Our goals are still intact,” Clark reiterated after the game.

The loss doesn’t put the Hawkeyes out of Final Four or Big Ten title contention, and if anything, it might act as a welcome wake-up call at this point of the season. There is still plenty of history that can and will be made this season for Iowa.

National reporters showed up last Thursday for Iowa’s home game against Penn State with the consideration that a 66-point performance needed to break the record wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility for Clark. We showed up again in Lincoln because 39 points were well within reach. Thursday, Clark most likely will pass Plum in the first quarter.

This wasn’t the night Iowa wanted, but make no mistake, it is no small feat to contain Clark for even 10 minutes. So Sunday, yes, Nebraska witnessed history.

Because of that, on Thursday, Iowa will too.

(Photo: Steven Branscombe / Getty Images)