By John Bohnenkamp
IOWA CITY — Caitlin Clark understands.
Iowa’s NCAA tournament second-round game against Creighton on Sunday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is a sellout.
The noon game is also on ABC, the only NCAA women’s game in that time slot.
That, Clark said, is as big as it can get.
“Obviously ESPN is great,” said Clark, Iowa’s All-American sophomore guard, “but ABC is a whole different level. We’re excited getting to play in front of 14,000-something, due to NCAA seating. That’s a huge deal as well.
“Those two combined together, what better platform can you ask to play women’s basketball on and to grow the game?”
Jim Flanery is a lot older than Clark, so he gets it, and the Creighton coach hopes his players understand, too.
“I don’t know if they’re of an age that they know that there’s that much difference between ABC and ESPN,” Flanery said. “For someone of my generation there were three television stations and public television was the fourth … way back before cable. But I don’t know if they understand.”
Flanery also gets why the stage has such a spotlight. And he hopes his program can bask in it.
“I figured we’d get a pretty good slot because I know Caitlin is must-watch TV to a large degree, and that’s great for our sport,” Flanery said. “Tomorrow will be great for Creighton women’s basketball. I know it’s more about Caitlin and Iowa’s program, but like we have a chance to be there and make a statement and show what our program is about tomorrow, and so that’s exciting.”
Friday’s first-round games had a sell-out crowd of 14,382, the highest among the eight sites playing.
The same number is expected on Sunday.
“For me, I’m really excited to play on this, and I think all my teammates can say the same,” said Creighton forward Emma Ronsiek. “We’re really excited to play in front of a crowd, even though it’s going to be a little skewed towards Iowa, I think, because it’s a home-court advantage for them. But nonetheless I think we’re all really still excited about just being able to play in front of this kind of stage because this is what March Madness is, just playing in front of a crowd like this, so I’m really excited.
“Yeah, just echoing everything Emma said, it’s obviously going to be a really fun game with that crowd and ABC at noon,” said guard Lauren Jensen, who played at Iowa last season before transferring. “So it’s going to be fun.”
Iowa (24-7), the second seed in the Greensboro Region, will be playing in front of its third consecutive home sellout.
The Hawkeyes, too, grasp the impact of this game.
“I mean, obviously it’s super cool we got to sell out not just one game but two back to back,” guard Gabbie Marshall said. “But getting that viewership for women’s basketball in general, it’s showing that more people are wanting to watch women’s basketball and wanting to watch us play. It’s exciting, that’s what you want, as a woman’s basketball player, it’s cool to see the amount of people that are watching your games.”
The Hawkeyes and Creighton (21-9), the No. 10 seed, have a relationship that no one sees — the two teams play a closed preseason scrimmage every season.
“We’ve always scrimmaged in front of some people at the scorers’ table, and a few bench personnel,” Flanery said. “Tomorrow it will be in front of 15,000 people. So it will be a little more challenging. But if you’re a coach or competitor, what more could you want?”
Flanery and Bluder think they’ve been doing the scrimmage, usually around Halloween, for at least 10 seasons, although neither knows when this relationship began.
“We contacted Creighton because they’re close, they’re always willing to come here. And they’re really good,” Bluder said. “And so it gave us an opportunity to play somebody in a closed scrimmage like that. And we’ve just had a good relationship. So we’ve been going every single year.”
Sunday’s stage will be louder and more tense than any of those behind-the-scenes days in the fall.
Everyone, it seems, is ready for it.
“We’ve always felt like we learned a lot when we played them,” Flanery said. “It never really felt like we had to win when we’d come over here, I always thought it was more of a learning tool. If we won, great. If we didn’t, it was not a big deal.
“Tomorrow, that won’t be the case.”
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark celebrates after making a shot in Friday’s NCAA tournament first-round game. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)