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Caitlin Clark sets up her teammates in more ways than one, which is a big factor in Iowa's success

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Caitlin Clark thought junior teammate Sydney Affolter came in and played great after Molly Davis’ injury. Redshirt junior Kylie Feuerbach, too.

“That's what we're going to need going forward,” Clark said after Iowa's regular-season finale win over Ohio State. “I'm proud of our group when [the Buckeyes] went on their runs. I thought we always had a response.”

Five minutes and many questions later, she dropped in a note on another strong performance from Hannah Stuelke before answering a follow-up question about the sophomore forward.

“This is what Hannah is capable of every night,” Clark said. “I think it's just her confidence, believing in herself. I thought she made some big free throws. But yeah, I think she played really, really well and obviously that's going to be important going down the stretch.”

Clark is most well-known for her prolific scoring and career 3,685 points that put her past Pete Maravich’s legendary all-time points record. Her passing ability is a close second and she’s sixth on the all-time NCAA Division I women’s list with 1,058. They provide as much of a wow factor as her logo 3s, even if it’s been overshadowed recently by her scoring records.

Iowa forward Hannah Stuelke (left) and guard Sydney Affolter (center) have thrived in bigger roles on the team this season with Caitlin Clark leading the way. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Iowa forward Hannah Stuelke (left) and guard Sydney Affolter (center) have thrived in bigger roles on the team this season with Caitlin Clark leading the way. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Glossed over even more is her ability to dish it out in another way. It is no secret that the media masses in interview rooms and millions watching on TV are there for her, a generational talent who has captured the interest of basketball and non-sports fans alike. It is her name and number on the backs of the majority of fans in both home and visiting arenas, and her likeness on billboards and TV commercials.

But “The Clark Effect,” as it is known, wouldn’t be without the Iowa teammates who have suited up next to her over the years. They all wear “Iowa” on the front of their jerseys, just as fans have on the front of Clark’s T-shirts, and she makes sure the spotlight is widened to credit them whenever possible. It’s one way she’s taken more leadership of a new group after three years of the same starters, and a big reason Iowa is in a position to return to the Final Four.

“My teammates, I’m just so thankful,” Clark said the night she passed Kelsey Plum’s all-time NCAA DI women’s scoring record in February. “They let me be me and I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for them.”

“Everyone on that team loves her,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “They are not jealous of her. They know how hard she works for it. And they know what she brings to our team. So I'm very thankful that I have a group of women that understand that.”

Clark, the No. 4 overall recruit in the 2020 class, is the only five-star recruit on Iowa’s roster, and the first since current assistant coach Tania Davis in the class of 2015, according to ESPN HoopGurlz data. None of the teammates who played alongside Clark over the past four seasons entered college as five-star recruits and only a few cracked the top 100 recruiting rankings. Three of those, including No. 45 overall recruit Stuelke, are recent Iowa additions as part of the 2022 class. No one ranked higher than No. 39.

Clark’s ability to find teammates even when they don’t think they’re open makes everyone around her better, lifting the team into the top of the Associated Press poll and title talk. She’s the Division I assists leader for a third consecutive season, averaging a career-best 8.7 per game as a senior and 8.1 over her career.

In 92 of her 100 collegiate games heading into this year, that supporting cast looked the same. Their experience with each other was a large reason the Hawkeyes ran through the NCAA tournament last year to the program’s first national title game, where they lost to LSU.

Two of those four familiar faces remain.

Kate Martin earned her first all-Big Ten honor this week on the second team and is the first Iowa player to reach at least 900 points, 500 rebounds, 400 assists, 120 steals and 60 blocks in a career. Fans call the fifth-year guard and captain who grew up attending Iowa camps “the glue.”

Fifth-year guard Gabbie Marshall is "the spark” and her 3-pointers at pivotal moments elicit similar roars from fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena as Clark’s barrage from deep. She was named to the All-Big Ten Tournament team last year and became the first Hawkeye with 200 made 3s and 200 steals in a career.

Outside of the key returners, there were starters playing alongside an even-better Clark who didn’t know how fast and hard her high-IQ passes came into their hands. Or to always have your head up and ready in transition, even if you don’t think you’re open. They had to step up and fill in as chemistry built between them.

Molly Davis, who transferred in 2022 from Central Michigan as a steady ball-handler (she leads the team in assist-to-turnover rate at +2.51), moved into a starter role and is hopeful to return after injuring her knee against Ohio State. Iowa said in a release the fifth-year senior will undergo physical therapy this week to “improve mobility for postseason play.”

Stuelke, the reigning Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, faced one of the toughest tasks of any Iowa player. She took over the center position from Monika Czinano, a WNBA Draft pick with a lengthy resumé as one-half of the pick-and-roll happy “Law Firm” with Clark. In her first year as a starter, Stuelke has shown flashes of stardom and earned all-Big Ten second-team honors this week.

After Clark one-upped Stuelke’s career-high 47-point performance that featured 15 assists by the point guard, the two joked about going back-and-forth for Carver Hawkeye-Arena records. Clark, after scoring a historic 49 against Michigan, told a packed interview room that Stuelke “better break” the single-game record.

“I think that just speaks to our culture and the team coach Bluder has built here,” Clark said. “You just want to see your teammates succeed. I was so happy for [Stuelke] the other night. I’m perfectly fine with Hannah going out and scoring 50 next game. So hopefully she does that.”

Stuelke scoring half of Iowa’s average game total is only going to help Clark achieve her ultimate goal of winning an NCAA national championship. She has honored each record as it came, using it to shine attention on former record-holders and other top performers around the country. But a title still eludes her with only one chance left after she announced she would enter the WNBA Draft in April.

That, more than a scoring record, takes a team-wide effort. It begins on Friday with the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals (6:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) when No. 2 seed Iowa plays the winner of No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 10 Wisconsin in Minneapolis. Tournament tickets sold out weeks ago as another entry of The Clark Effect that most recently led to a Travis Scott sighting in Iowa City.

After team photos with the Billboard chart topper and 20 minutes of autographs for fans hanging into the tunnel, Clark entered another full media room. Cameras lined the back wall and media members piled in for quotes about another record-breaking day and yet another 30-plus point outing.

Clark was asked how it came to be that four years ago she was playing in front of a cardboard cutout of her dog because of COVID-19 fan restrictions and now in a sold-out arena with Scott, four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore and Jake from State Farm courtside.

She loved every minute of it, she said. Through ups and downs, she said she matured to handle and balance the frenzy of attention.

And then there were her teammates, who also had to live up to that pressure cooker surrounding them and did it well. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is as loud for Clark’s points as they are for everyone else.

“You can just feel the energy and the joy and the excitement that our team plays with and that’s contagious,” Clark said. “That's what's been so fun about this whole ride is the style of basketball we play. People love it. They're not just here for me. I'm sure I help, but at the end of the day, we have a really great team and a really great culture. And that's what makes it so fun.”