‘Caitlin Clark is a pioneer.’ Nancy Lieberman, one of basketball’s all-time greats, on Iowa’s senior star

One of the sport’s original pioneers was on hand for her first Clark game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — At the end of her 64th and final home game Monday night, Caitlin Clark launched the ball into the stands at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

What looked like another colorful act of defiance against the norm, actually was aimed at her family.”The NCAA usually runs them down and tells them they can’t have it,” Iowa’s star said.

“But they can have it.”Typical Clark, who screamed, gestured and shot her way to 32 points in the top-seeded Hawkeyes’ 64-54 win over No. 8 seed West Virginia that thrust them into the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.

Nancy Lieberman was watching in person. At 65, she is one of the original pioneers of the women’s game. She was so good at Old Dominion and the WNBA, they called her “Lady Magic,” a salute to male counterpart Magic Johnson.

Nine years ago she became the second female assistant in the NBA.

She wasn’t going to miss this moment. Lieberman and Clark bonded four years ago through Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. They talk regularly by Zoom. That’s the platform used by Lieberman also to address the Hawkeyes before each season.

On Monday, Lieberman took time out from her duties as broadcaster for the Oklahoma City Thunder to make her way to Iowa’s campus. This was the first time she had seen Clark play a home game.
ENGAGE - Nancy Lieberman

That it was the senior’s last home game only ratcheted up the emotion.”I don’t have this moment if it wasn’t for her,” Clark said.

You see, there is more to this than legend watching prodigy. There is a subtle passing of the torch going on here. A large part of this season has been about Clark becoming the leading scorer in college basketball history. Another record fell Monday when Clark passed Kelsey Plum for the Division I single-season scoring record.

Soon, Clark will win the college point guard of the year award named after Lieberman for the third time.When Lieberman, a Hall of Famer, was told she is the pioneer of pioneers, the conversation stopped.”You know what? She doesn’t know she’s a pioneer,” Lieberman told CBS Sports.

“I tell this to the WNBA players now, ‘You’re pioneers because there are two-year-olds who are going to be making $5 million a year because of what you did and I did. Caitlin Clark is a pioneer.”

Clark’s on-court conduct remains a topic for both purists and gushing fan girls and fan boys alike. When the hard-fought win was assured Monday, Clark raised her arms to encourage the crowd, cupped her hand to an ear and shouted, “C’mon! Let’s go!” before turning to the West Virginia bench, clapping aggressively.

The ball hurled into the stands topped the display, the night and a home career.”She’s got wonderful emotions,” Lieberman said. “If a guy does that, nobody says anything. If Pat Beverley does it or Russell Westbrook or Dennis Rodman [does it], nobody gives a shit.

I know what it’s like to have pressure on you, to have the game on your shoulders. It’s OK. I’d rather she be like that. She reps the game the right way. She prepares the right way. Her teammates love her.”Of that, there is no doubt.

Clark had one field goal in the final 16 minutes of Monday’s titanic struggle. Iowa as a team had just one field goal in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes were held more than 28 points below their nation-leading 92.8-point average.

Either Iowa got caught looking ahead to next weekend’s Sweet 16 or West Virginia played their guts out in one of the best defensive efforts the Hawkeyes have seen this season.

Or maybe it was a little of both.Either way, those who evaluated Iowa’s as the toughest quadrant of the bracket were correct. The Hawkeyes simply survived Monday’s game as much as they won it.

Bluder knew the Mountaineers were physical. She knew they were defensive. She didn’t know West Virginia would commit 27 personal fouls, have two players foul out and still have a pulse.West Virginia tied the game at 48 with 5:18 left and those wild-eyed Iowa fans were nervously looking at each other like, This could really happen.

This had the intensity of a Lakers-Celtics final from the 80s. Bluder broke out the old-fashioned 2-3 zone defensively to claw back some turf. With West Virginia’s speedy, brawny defense bearing down, Iowa committed the fewest turnovers (15) of any Mountaineer opponent this season.”That’s typically not our style, but we found a way,” Bluder said.

“I’m so proud of this team for being able to divert from what usually works for us and find a different way to win.”And when it came to finding a way to win, Clark closed her Carver-Hawkeye Arena career by knocking down six foul shots in the game’s 45 seconds to send Iowa to the Sweet 16 in Albany, New York, next weekend.

“How about the greatest player in the history of the game?” the PA announcer screamed as the game ended.How about her?With the game finally in hand, there was Clark drumming up the crowd one last time, in what appeared to be half-relief and half-variation on a theme.

“I’ve always been one that plays to the crowd,” she said. “That’s just who I am. That’s what I kind of do. I’m an entertainer in a way.”

Lieberman, watching the whole time, said, “It’s an honor to see her.”And for Clark, it was an honor to be seen by Lieberman. “She’s someone who challenged the boundaries and pushed women forward,” Clark said. “She can hoop at the end of the day. I’m kind of a kid living in a dream.”

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