Caitlin Clark, Iowa and the stuff of legends

DALLAS -- On Feb. 26, the Iowa Hawkeyes were 1.5 seconds away from their second consecutive loss to end the regular season. Now, they are 40 minutes from winning the 2023 women's NCAA basketball championship.

But instead of losing that game to the Indiana Hoosiers, Caitlin Clark launched a game-winning 3-pointer. That second and a half kick-started a nine-game winning streak that has landed the Hawkeyes in their first national championship game.

Since then, Clark has 235 points, 82 assists and 52 rebounds in the postseason, winning the Big Ten tournament, the Seattle 4 Regional title and getting the upset of this NCAA tournament Friday night as her Hawkeyes ended No. 1 overall seed South Carolina's 42-game winning streak with a 77-73 victory at American Airlines Center.

In front of a sellout crowd that included tennis legend Billie Jean King, Clark delivered the goods once again. Everyone has had an idea of how to stop Clark, but no one has been able to do it. The expectations for Clark rose every game, and she has risen to the occasion.

"I think I'm just really, really thankful to be in this position more than anything," Clark said. "Like Coach [Lisa] Bluder said, probably everybody in America picked South Carolina, deservedly so. They've been ranked No. 1 all year. They've won 42 straight basketball games. Why wouldn't you pick them?

"But at the same time, the people in our locker room believed in us. That's all you need is a belief in one another, a confidence in one another. We just do it for the person to our left and our right."

And when you have someone like Clark beside you, it's easy to believe. In a tournament that in the past 30 years has seen epic individual performances from the likes of Sheryl Swoopes, Chamique Holdsclaw, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson, Clark has already put her name among the greats with this NCAA tournament run.

With Iowa's first Final Four in 30 years in sight in the regional final vs. the Louisville Cardinals on March 26, Clark delivered a masterpiece: a 41-point, 10-rebound, 12-assist triple-double that had her name trending on Twitter for several days afterward. It will continue after Friday's tour-de-force: 41 points, again, along with eight assists against the best defense in Division I women's basketball.

Her teammates and Bluder say nothing Clark does surprises them anymore. They see the magic in practice each day. The long 3-pointers, the pull-up jumpers, the drives to the rim, the soft shots off the glass, the passes long and short that make fans gasp at her brilliance.

And when the lights are the brightest, Clark's light gets brighter. Longtime Iowa assistant coach Jan Jensen has been watching Clark play since she was in junior high.

"Caitlin is just wired differently," Jensen said in the Iowa locker room. "She's got a confidence about her. With Caitlin, you can just see it in her eyes. She leans into moments. She wants them. She has practiced the moments since she was little.

"She knows basketball. She watches the men's game, she knows the women's game. She knows her craft. She said, 'I'm going to Iowa. I'm going to take them to a Final Four. She said this when she was in high school. And where are we now?"

Teammate Kate Martin said sometimes she has to remind herself she's playing alongside someone who could very well be in the early stages of one of the great careers in women's basketball history.

When Clark went to the foul line twice in the last 14 seconds for high-pressure free throws to seal the victory, Martin wasn't nervous.

"I would take her at the line all day over anybody in the world," Martin said. "I'm proud of her. She deserves all the recognition. I see it all the time. I know I'll appreciate it even more when one day when I'm older and I'm looking back and thinking, 'Wow, that was my teammate.'"

Clark has one more game to achieve the ultimate: A national championship. The second-seeded Hawkeyes face the No. 3 seed LSU Tigers, which beat the top-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies 79-72, on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

But for Friday night, she and her teammates wanted to enjoy another unforgettable night.

"It's so fun to play with her honestly," Iowa forward Monika Czinano said. "Getting to watch that every single day, getting to be a part of it, you can't make it up. It's one of the coolest things I'll ever do in my life. I love it."