By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
The future could wait, Caitlin Clark said.
Her eyes red from the emotion of a brilliant journey with a cruel ending, Clark wasn’t ready to gaze.
Iowa’s 102-85 loss to LSU in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament national championship game was a crushing end to the Hawkeyes’ postseason run, one that grabbed the nation’s attention and increased the wattage to Clark’s incandescence.
The junior guard will leave Dallas with every national player of the year honor that was handed out last week — the Wooden Award, the last one, will be given out this month — but the championship she craved was carried away by someone else.
It was a little more than a year ago when Clark’s eyes burned with fury in the press conference after the Hawkeyes’ second-round loss to Creighton. Next season had already started in that glare.
The tears of Sunday were a sign that she wasn’t ready for this season to end.
“I think the biggest thing is it’s really, really special,” Clark said. “I don’t think it’s going to set in for me for quite some time.”
Clark was captivating in March, building off the 3-pointer she hit at the buzzer to defeat Indiana in the final regular-season game. She led Iowa to its roar through the Big Ten Tournament on the way to a championship in Minneapolis, then commanded the Hawkeyes’ charge to the Final Four.
The area-code 3-pointers, the assists, the drives to the basket — all of it made for a March show to remember.
She scored 191 points in six games, a tournament record, but her influence was much deeper, an impact that can’t be quantified by numbers.
“I want my legacy to be the impact that I can have on young kids and the people in the state of Iowa, and I hope I brought them a lot of joy this season,” Clark said. “I hope this team brought them a lot of joy. I understand we came up one win short, but I think we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to celebrate.”
The impact the entire team had was just as significant. The Hawkeyes were embraced, and with each step the attention grew.
“That’s what our whole team is about,” coach Lisa Bluder said. “They’re role models. They relish in it, and not just for young kids either.
“This team has brightened the lives of so many people of all ages.”
Iowa had grabbed this tournament and didn’t let it go until the Tigers and questionable officiating took it away.
The two teams were called for a championship-game record 37 fouls. Clark got three first-half fouls, two on push-off calls, then her fourth that came in the second half was a technical foul called when she flipped the basketball behind her back after Iowa center Monika Czinano had been called for her fourth foul.
Official Lisa Jones said, through a pool reporter, that it was a delay-of-game technical — Iowa had received a warning earlier in the game.
“I thought they called it very, very tight,” said Clark. “I don’t know about the two push-offs in the second quarter. I’m sure they saw that I pushed off and they called it and whatnot, and then (they) hit (me) with the technical foul in the third for throwing the ball under the basket.”
Iowa, down by as much as 21 points early in the second half, was within nine when that happened. The Hawkeyes would get no closer.
Czinano, playing in her last game, fouled out midway through the fourth quarter. McKenna Warnock, playing in her last game, followed with her fifth foul with under two minutes to play.
“I can’t comment on the officials,” Bluder said through her own tears. “It’s very frustrating because I feel like I can’t talk to them. They won’t even listen. That’s what’s frustrating — there wasn’t even a conversation that could be had.
“When your two seniors have to sit on the bench — they don’t know they’re seniors. I get it. But those two women didn’t deserve it. I don’t think so. And then Caitlin getting a T, I don’t know. It’s too bad. Yeah, it’s too bad.”
The Hawkeyes had four weeks of March to remember, one day of April to forget. Or, at least, put aside for a while, because getting this close is only motivation for what’s next.
That, Clark said, could wait.
”We made history, and there’s a lot to be proud of,” she said. “There’s a lot to reflect on these last couple weeks. Three weeks have been crazy, to say the least. I’m just thankful that I got to be on this journey with these people.
“I think more than anything we’re losing two seniors that gave their heart and soul to this program. Obviously I think they set a really good example for other people that we have in that locker room of what it takes to be able to play at this level on this stage. I’m really grateful that that’s what they did, because we have to bring people along and bring people up to get back to this point.”
Clark has one more season to get a championship, and maybe another — she hinted earlier this season that she might stay for the extra season granted by the NCAA during the COVID-19 pandemic season of 2020-21.
“Of course I’m happy I get to coach Caitlin another year,” Bluder said. “Maybe two.”
But Clark’s calendar was frozen for the moment.
“This is our goal every single year,” she said. “We’re not just going to be satisfied with making it here one time, but at the same time, I’m not worried about what’s next right now. It’s been a really long, really fun season with this group. I just need to take some time to reflect and appreciate all that’s come with it.”
Photo: Caitlin Clark hugs Monika Czinano after Czinano fouled out of Sunday’s NCAA Tournament national championship game. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)
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