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When the lights shine brightest, Caitlin Clark delivers — and she did yet again in an epic showing against LSU

ALBANY, N.Y. — Caitlin Clark sat in the confetti not far from where she regularly shoots and hits from deep. The crowd of teammates, family and friends had naturally cleared an open spot, like LSU cleared room for her to tie her career-record of nine 3-pointers. Pulling her new Final Four hat low, she typed on her phone. Scrolled a little. Wiped her face at the end of a long work day.

The college senior wanted a little silence for herself to take a couple of deep breaths. The piece of the net she cut from the rims of MVP Arena popped high from her ponytail as cameras snapped photos.

“These moments go fast. I know how fast they go,” Clark said in the locker room. “My career is almost over and I’ll never win an Elite Eight game again. Soak it in and enjoy it.”

Minutes later, she stepped back into the fray for photos and confetti throwing. Young children who stayed after most of the 13,888 strong left bellowed her name in unison to grab even a smile from the superstar who they watched score 41 points with relative ease against the team that kept her from a national championship.

It was Iowa that celebrated this time after a 94-87 victory over LSU clinched the loaded Albany 2 regional and a berth in the Final Four. The NCAA all-time leading scorer set multiple more records: career 3-pointers, a tie for 3s in a game, and the all-time all-school scoring record set by Pearl Moore.

The title game rematch was circled as soon as the brackets came out and became appointment viewing when each team clinched its spot in the Elite Eight on Saturday.

But Iowa players and head coach Lisa Bluder insisted afterward, much as they had in the days leading up to it, that they weren’t wrapped up in the idea of revenge. To them, this has nothing to do with LSU. It didn’t matter what team stood in the way. When the run is done, so are the careers of Clark, Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin. Bluder told them to live in the moment and keep it alive.

“If you live in the past too much that it kind of ruins the present,” Clark said. “That’s what we talked about. Be where your feet are. The biggest thing we talked about was what does Iowa need to do to win this game?”

Iowa's celebrates with teammates during the Hawkeyes' win over LSU on Monday. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Iowa's celebrates with teammates during the Hawkeyes' win over LSU on Monday. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images) (Sarah Stier via Getty Images)

Iowa needed to start hot, sink 3s and play solid defense. It did all three. Clark gave everyone an idea of what was to come when she pulled up and hit from deep on the Hawkeyes' first possession after Hannah Stuelke reeled in the first rebound of the game. She entered the game 11-of-34 from 3 in the NCAA tournament after a rocky Big Ten showing from deep.

“I probably haven't been shooting it as good from three over the course of the last five or so games,” Clark said. “But even if you told me that, I would still have 110 percent belief in myself and what I've been able to do this year.”

On the next possession, she drove in to establish the lane. Gabbie Marshall immediately tipped a pass on the perimeter at the other end, grabbed the ball and fed Stuelke for another two points.

The Hawkeyes led by as many as nine in the first quarter and entered halftime tied, 45-45. Clark came out of the locker room and hit her fourth 3 to send Iowa to a crushing 24-13 third quarter. Clark shot 4-of-7 from 3 in the period to build a 69-58 lead that LSU couldn’t cut back into until the waning minutes.

“There's not a lot of strategy. You've got to guard her. Nobody else seems to be able to guard her,” LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said. “We didn't even guard her last year when we beat them. She's just a generational player, and she just makes everybody around her better. That's what the great ones do.”

Cameras caught LSU guard Hailey Van Lith shrugging a “what can you do” on one of Clark’s shots, an exasperation the Iowa superstar often creates in opponents and will keep doing for at least one more game at the collegiate level.

“She’s a great player. She hit some tough shots,” Van Lith said. “There's not a whole lot you can do about some of the threes she hit.”

“Her distance shots were amazing tonight,” Bluder said. “Her logo 3s were incredible. How do you defend that, right? It is nearly impossible.”

At the 5:05 mark when she hit ninth and final 3 to make it an 11-point game, she pounded her chest and looked at the crowd, letting out the emotion of a long year trying to make it back. She didn’t realize she did it.

“I think I just got hyped for a second, honestly,” she said. “I was trying to be pretty calm and cool. When you’re playing a team like LSU, they’re never out of the game. No matter what the time and score is.”

The emotional component is a large reason viewership numbers for the game are expected to shatter records. Clark and LSU superstar Angel Reese trash talked their way through the title game and have been embroiled in a larger conversation about it ever since. Reese is often criticized for it and Clark drew attention for antics in the first-round game.

“It could have been a highly emotional game,” Bluder said. “It could have been a lot of talking going on out there. Just from what happened at the end of last year. Honestly, she put it aside. She put everything aside.”

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark cuts the net after defeating LSU on Monday. (Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark cuts the net after defeating LSU on Monday. (Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

Bluder credited her star for building up her teammates in the huddle, and each stepped up in their own way. Stuelke battled foul trouble, but was 3-of-5 for eight points going up against Reese in the paint. Martin scored 21 and Sydney Affolter, thrust into the starting lineup in the postseason, scored 16 to earn all-region honors. Clark fed them early, giving up her own shot for a game-high 12 assists that dazzled casual fans lighting up social media. Yes, Clark is an exquisite passer with assists that boggle the mind.

“Caitlin Clark is not going to beat you by herself,” Mulkey said. “It's what she does to make those other teammates better that helps her score points and them score points to beat you.”

Defensively, she also stepped up. Clark, Martin and Marshall each had two steals apiece in a quality defensive showing. Marshall stood out on the perimeter tipping passes and creating problems for LSU’s offense to get rolling.

“I mean, nothing pops off the [stat] page besides [she] never got a sub the entire game, and she is working her tail off on defense constantly,” Martin said.

Flau’jae Johnson remained LSU's pulse with 23 points, freshman Mikaylah Williams added 18 and both Reese (17 points, 20 rebounds) and Aneesah Morrow (14 points, 14 rebounds) secured double-doubles. Reese rolled her ankle in the first half and said after the game she’s been playing through an injury to it for a while.

Marshall and Addy O’Grady, the center who stepped into quality minutes with Stuelke benched, each notched blocks as did Clark. The senior put a resounding end to the game and 15 seconds later she dribbled out the clock on what she hopes isn’t her last trophy-lifting experience.

“You’re never satisfied with being in the Final Four,” Clark said. “We were really close to achieving our goal last year. Being able to get back there is amazing, and you enjoy this and soak this in. But once you get there, you kind of turn the page.”

As the celebration came to an end, Clark exited the court with a pen surrounded by more cameras. She went child to child signing T-shirts and shoes. Parents held their children’s gear over the top of heads in an attempt for an autograph or a hello. Photos snapped as she walked through the tunnel, the back of her No. 22 and the tip of the net swaying from her hat.

The final week of her collegiate career is going to go fast. She simply hopes it doesn’t end too soon.