Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers and an epic Final Four clash

CLEVELAND — Before Friday’s Final Four showdown, before both players had even made a national semifinal or won a player of the year award, Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers first faced off at the college level in a game that seems like a lifetime ago.

It was March 2021, and the NCAA tournament was played in a “bubble,” the tail end of a season marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. The women’s tournament hadn’t yet surged in popularity, and couldn’t even use March Madness branding.

Bueckers and Clark were just freshmen but were already two of the biggest names in the sport, the former on her way to being the consensus national player of the year. Meeting in a highly anticipated Sweet 16 matchup in front of a few thousand fans at the Alamodome, Bueckers’ top-ranked UConn Huskies knocked off Clark’s No. 5 seed Iowa Hawkeyes 92-72, though neither was the game’s leading scorer.

“Honestly, that game is super blurry,” Clark said Thursday. “I saw some old footage of that game and we both look really, really young.”

Their paths diverged from there. Bueckers was sidelined most of the past two seasons because of injury, while Clark led Iowa to its first Final Four in 30 years, sweeping player of the year awards and emerging at the forefront of women’s college basketball’s recent explosion.

Now, with both two wins away from the NCAA title that has eluded them, their careers converge one final time on the collegiate stage. When the season is over, Clark will move on to the WNBA while Bueckers returns to Storrs for another season. And although they have repeatedly emphasized that Friday’s national semifinal (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) is Iowa vs. UConn and not an individual showdown, it seems fitting that the stars meet again in this moment they’ve helped create for women’s basketball, at the apex of the sport’s meteoric rise.

“[The sport] needs some stars,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It needs people that have the right personality, the right game, and we have that now.”

BUECKERS AND CLARK are both 6-foot guards whose games are fairly distinct. But before going their respective ways to Iowa and UConn, their paths featured more parallels than contrasts.

Both highly touted Midwestern prospects — Bueckers from Hopkins, Minnesota, Clark from West Des Moines, Iowa — they played on the same AAU circuit and were ranked Nos. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in their class by ESPN. The two also joined forces on USA Basketball’s youth squads to win gold at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup and the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championship.

Bueckers was considered the next UConn great before she even arrived in Storrs. She lived up to the billing when she became the first freshman to win every national player of the year award for which she was eligible, and after beating Iowa in San Antonio, she led the Huskies to the 2021 national semifinals, where they were upset by Arizona.

The rest of Bueckers’ journey hasn’t gone to plan. As a sophomore, she was limited to 17 games by a knee injury but returned for the postseason to propel the Huskies to the national title game, where they lost to South Carolina. Heartbreak later struck when she tore an ACL in August 2022 and had to miss the entire 2022-23 season.

UConn’s run to Cleveland is all the more special to Bueckers after being away from the game for so long.

“[Making the Final Four is] one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt in my life,” Bueckers said after she had 28 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists against 1-seed USC on Monday.

“Just seeing where I was a year ago, today, doing individual workouts, starting to feel the basketball again, get the ball in my hands again and play. Now I’m here with my teammates and coaching staff and going to the Final Four.”

Clark said she had reached out to Bueckers before the season to wish her good luck and tell her she was rooting for her.

“I’ve watched UConn quite a bit,” said Clark, who leads the nation with 32.0 PPG. “They’re just such a fundamental, really good basketball team. They’re a team you always want to watch.”

Anchoring an injury-laden Huskies squad, Bueckers has arguably surpassed her freshman campaign, playing out of position at power forward and asserting herself more as a staunch defender, all while maintaining her trademark efficiency from all over the floor. And she has elevated her game even more in the postseason, where she’s averaging 27.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 3.1 steals and 2.6 blocks — in part because she has learned to give herself grace amid this trying first year back from injury.

“At the beginning of the Big East tournament, I just told myself that I play so much better when I’m playing with joy and not thinking about the pressures that come with playing at UConn, expecting to win every single game no matter who’s out on the floor,” Bueckers said last month before UConn’s second-round NCAA tournament game.

“So just getting back to playing with joy, playing with so much energy and passion that it’s contagious and you’re not even thinking about ‘What if we lose?’ or ‘What if we do this?’ or ‘What if we do that?'”



The numbers behind UConn vs. Iowa

Check out the most important stats surrounding UConn and Iowa’s women’s Final Four clash this Friday.

CLARK TOOK CENTER stage in 2023. After leading Iowa to the program’s second Final Four and first since 1993, she had 41 points as the Hawkeyes upset unbeaten South Carolina in the national semifinals. Then the Iowa-LSU title game last April drew 9.9 million viewers, making it at the time the most-watched women’s college basketball game on record.

Clark has continued to take the country by storm this season with her logo 3-pointers and sharp passing. On Feb. 15, she broke Kelsey Plum’s NCAA women’s scoring record. Two weeks later, she passed Lynette Woodard’s women’s major-college record (Woodard played in the AIAW, which preceded the NCAA in governing women’s sports). On March 3, Clark eclipsed Pete Maravich‘s Division I scoring record for men or women.

And in the Hawkeyes’ Elite Eight win over LSU, Clark moved past Pearl Moore, who held the women’s all-college scoring record, and reached 540 3-pointers, the NCAA women’s record. Clark now has 3,900 points, along with 1,132 assists. With every milestone, she has acknowledged the legends of the past, but has also said all that really matters is Iowa winning.

Clark said a loss her sophomore season changed the trajectory of her career. The No. 2 seed Hawkeyes fell 64-62 at home to No. 10 seed Creighton, an upset that Clark had to sit with for months.

“I don’t think my career evolves in the way that it did if we didn’t lose to Creighton,” Clark said. “That was probably the lowest of lows of my career. Every athlete has had one of those moments. I had to look in the mirror, and our team had to look in the mirror.”

But, Clark said, too much has been made of Auriemma not recruiting her, which was detailed in a recent ESPN story.

“Everybody grows up thinking they’re going to UConn. Like, it’s UConn. Everybody wants to get recruited by Geno,” Clark said. “Through my recruiting process … I went on a lot of visits. I quickly figured out I wanted to be close to the State of Iowa, so that eliminated everybody else around the country other than teams in the Midwest. The biggest thing was finding what I loved and what was going to make me successful. I think I definitely made the right decision.

“I don’t know that my career goes as it has if I don’t stay [in] Iowa. When you’re a kid from the State of Iowa, the state’s probably going to rally around you. That’s a place I can go back to and be proud of.”

They have already helped elevate their respective programs. Bueckers has guided the Huskies to the Final Four each year she has been healthy, while Clark has spearheaded Iowa’s stretch of two straight appearances.



Can anyone stop South Carolina in the Final Four?

Rebecca Lobo and Andraya Carter discuss the Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers showdown and South Carolina’s dominance heading into the Final Four.

But a lot has changed on the court since the two faced off in 2021. Bueckers didn’t get to play in the Huskies and Hawkeyes’ matchup last season, a seven-point UConn win at the Phil Knight Legacy invitational. But having watched from afar, she has seen Clark’s shooting range and basketball acumen grow.

“She’s just a competitor,” Bueckers said of Clark. “She wants to win. She has just intangibles of the game. She knows how to play, a great IQ. I think the biggest thing about her is she competes, and she’s just a winner. She wants to win at all costs.”

Clark sees the ways in which her and Bueckers’ games are similar but also “very different.” Bueckers plays off the ball whereas Clark tends to have the ball in her hands.

“Her game is just so smooth, she’s fun to watch,” Clark said of Bueckers. “She moves effortlessly out there like it’s just so natural. Then she additionally works really hard at it.

“Paige has always been one of the most dominant players, that has never changed. She’s always been able to go up against the best.”

Two of the college game’s best will go at it Friday. “They know what’s what,” Auriemma said. “And Caitlin comes down and makes a huge 3, don’t think that Paige is going to pass the next one up and pass it to somebody.”

But at the end of the day, the individual matchup, the individual accolades and attention, don’t matter to either player as they look to achieve the one goal they have yet to accomplish: winning a national championship.

Source link