DALLAS — Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark finished an amazing NCAA tournament run Sunday, falling just short of the program’s first national championship, as Iowa fell 102-85 to the LSU Tigers. The junior chose the Hawkeyes not just to stay close to her family in West Des Moines, Iowa, but also because she truly believed she could reach her dream of leading Iowa to its first women’s Final Four since 1993.
She did that and went further: getting to the NCAA final. Along the way, she made herself an even bigger legend — not just back home, but with basketball fans across the country. The women’s NCAA tournament began in 1982, and there have been superstar performances in it for each of its 40-plus years. But certain performances have truly captured the public interest and put players in the spotlight.
It’s hard not to include iconic players such as the UConn Huskies’ Rebecca Lobo and Maya Moore, the Tennessee Lady Vols’ Bridgette Gordon and Candace Parker, or the North Carolina Tar Heels’ Charlotte Smith — among many others — on this particular list. No doubt, they are among the best to ever play in the NCAA tournament. But we tried to narrow this down to a player who in many ways “defined” or took over a tournament — even if she didn’t end up winning it.
Here are the 10 most memorable women’s NCAA tournament individual performances:
10. Brittney Griner, Baylor, 2012
Dominant centers have emerged throughout NCAA tournament history, but few ruled a season quite like Griner in 2011-2012. The junior averaged 22.7 points and 5.2 blocks in the 2012 tournament as the Baylor Bears finished 40-0, winning their six NCAA tournament games by an average of 20.7 points.
9. Candice Wiggins, Stanford, 2008
Stanford had not been to the women’s Final Four in a decade (1997) when the senior Wiggins started a run in which the Cardinal have made it nine times in the past 15 tournaments. Wiggins averaged 25.2 points as No. 2 seed Stanford beat two No. 1 seeds, the UConn Huskies and Maryland Terrapins, before falling to another No. 1, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, in the national championship game.
8. Breanna Stewart, UConn, 2013
The freshman forward had set her public goal as winning four national championships. That seemed ambitious even for a top UConn recruit, since Baylor was the defending champion in 2013 with all its top players back. But while the Bears were upset in the Sweet 16, the youngster Stewart was taking over. She was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player — the first of four times she would win that award — as she would, indeed, get her four titles.
7. Chamique Holdsclaw, Tennessee, 1997
She won three NCAA titles with the Lady Vols, playing a key role in all of them. Her sophomore year run was perhaps the most impressive. Tennessee was the defending national champion, but with personnel losses and injuries, it had lost 10 games and finished fifth in the SEC. Led by Holdsclaw’s 22.7 PPG average in the tournament, Tennessee repeated as champion. Holdsclaw would win a third NCAA title in 1998 in an undefeated season, and she holds the record for total points scored in the NCAA tournament: 479 in 22 games.
6. Jackie Stiles, Missouri State, 2001
Stiles’ Missouri State team — then known as Southwest Missouri State — was the last true “mid-major” to make the women’s Final Four. Like Iowa, it did it with a high-scoring guard and an excellent cast of players who knew exactly what their roles were. Stiles had become the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer in the regular season, and then she averaged 28.0 points in her five NCAA tournament games. That included a 41-point effort over No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16. The Lady Bears fell in the national semifinals to Purdue.
5. Cheryl Miller, USC, 1983
Like other multi-time champions on this list, Miller could be singled out for other NCAA tournaments. Such as 1984, when she led the USC Trojans to their second national championship, or 1986, when they made the final before losing to unbeaten Texas. But as a freshman forward in 1983, Miller had 27 points (shooting 61.5% from the field) and nine rebounds as USC beat defending champion Louisiana Tech in the NCAA final.
4. Diana Taurasi, UConn, 2003
After winning the 2002 NCAA title with what’s widely considered the best team in women’s hoops history, junior guard Taurasi was the only returning starter in the 2002-2003 season. She took over, averaging 26.2 PPG in the 2003 NCAA tournament. That included leading a comeback against the Texas Longhorns in the semifinals and scoring 28 to beat Tennessee in the final. She also would be the leader in UConn winning a third consecutive title in 2004.
3. Arike Ogunbowale, Notre Dame, 2018
Her shots to beat UConn in overtime in the semifinals and the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the final are two of the biggest in NCAA tournament history. But the junior guard had a great all-around tournament in leading the Fighting Irish to their second national championship, averaging 24.2 PPG. She also averaged 25.8 PPG in the 2019 NCAA tournament, in which Notre Dame lost the title game.
2. Caitlin Clark, Iowa, 2023
Clark averaged 31.8 points, 10.0 assists and 5.2 rebounds in taking the Hawkeye to the title game. That included a 41-point triple-double in the regional final against Louisville and another 41-point effort against No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in the national semifinals. She had 30 points, eight assists and two rebounds Sunday in the loss to LSU, and she finished with more points (191) and assists (60) than anyone has had in a single women’s NCAA tournament.
1. Sheryl Swoopes, Texas Tech, 1993
Swoopes was a marvel in leading the Lady Raiders to their only NCAA title, and she did it with a spectacular championship game win over Ohio State. She had 47 points to hold off a great performance by Buckeyes freshman Katie Smith (28 points). Both would go on to be WNBA stars and Olympians. Swoopes had the record for points in an NCAA tournament (177) before Clark broke it Sunday. But Swoopes still has the highest scoring average for a player who made the Final Four: 35.4 PPG in five games, as the field in 1993 was still 48 teams and Texas Tech had a first-round bye.