A Night At The Caitlin Clark Show

17 seconds. That’s how long it took for Caitlin Clark to deliver on the promise of a show unlike anything else in women’s college basketball — one that brought nearly 18,000 people to College Park, Maryland on a Saturday night.

On Iowa’s opening possession, Clark caught the ball on the left wing and drifted out to the G where it reads “Gary Williams Court” before rising up to drill a 28-footer.

A few thousand of those that made the trek to College Park weren’t even in their seats yet, but luckily for them Clark is happy to play the hits over and over for 40 minutes. Traffic was backed up for a couple miles in either direction as folks flocked to the Xfinity Center to see Clark and the No. 3 Hawkeyes in action, causing parking lots to overflow and fans to scramble for seats together, as they just sell general admission tickets for women’s games. Those tickets, initially $25, were going for over $200 in the week leading up to the game, as even one of the largest arenas in college hoops couldn’t withstand the demand to catch a glimpse of Clark in perhaps her final season at Iowa.

After cutting our losses and parking a mile away, my wife and I made our way up to a block of empty seats near the back wall of the arena 15 minutes before tip, sitting eye level with Greivis Vasquez, Juan Dixon, and Steve Blake’s banners hanging in the rafters. The Clark Effect was impossible to miss on the walk in, as 900 miles from Iowa City the crowd was scattered with Clark jerseys and t-shirts, from little girls in special homemade outfits for the occasion to grown men donning officially licensed Nike jerseys.

The majority of the crowd were Terrapin faithful, though, who couldn’t help but be curious to see Clark in action and how Maryland’s squad, having a down year in the Big Ten, would hang with the third-ranked Hawkeyes. The answer to that question was “quite well,” as the Terps did more than just hang around, jumping out to an early lead as Iowa struggled after the initial Clark three. The crowd was electric, energized by each Hawkeye mistake, which included a pair of early travels on Clark as the Terps hounded her.

However, the challenge of facing Iowa is sometimes as simple as a math problem. Maryland attacked downhill, taking advantage of having bigger guards who could muscle their way into the paint, but trading twos for threes against Clark and company thins the margin for error to effectively zero. Clark, unsatisfied with her earlier effort from the front of the logo, upped the ante by drilling a three from the back of it to seize control back to Iowa, sending Gus Johnson on the call for Fox into hysterics in the process.

Iowa would go on to open up a 14-point lead at the break, with Clark hitting a late layup to move her point total to 23 in the half, seemingly putting to rest any notion of an upset in the making. However, the Terps would come out re-energized in the third quarter and hit back. Led by Jakia Brown-Turner and Bri McDaniel, Maryland would rip off a 23-3 run to take a 63-61 lead.

The energy in the building was electric, the crowd erupting for every Terp basket and Iowa miss. One of those was a fading three by Clark that missed everything, leading to the student section chanting “AIR-BALL” in full voice at Clark every time she touched it for the next three minutes.

For many, the gaze of 18,000, with at least a few thousand of those aggressively booing and chanting against you every time you touched it, would create too much pressure. For Clark, it seems to bring out her best. Ever the show-woman, she responded to lead a late Iowa run to restore order and push the Hawkeyes in front by 7 again going into the fourth quarter — including one more bomb from deep to hush the student section.

Maryland would not fade away in the fourth though, tying the game again at 76-76 midway through. The Xfinity Center was rocking, a signature win in a difficult season appeared in play. But as was the case all game, the Hawkeyes had an answer thanks to the playmaking of their star. Clark hit a three to regain the lead, and then assisted on the next three Iowa buckets, taking advantage of the attention she commands to find open teammates, like Sydney Affolter in the corner, who stay ready to knock down shots when Clark entrusts them with the moment.

That late flurry from Iowa was finally enough to wrestle control of the game away from Maryland, and even though the Terps lost, you’d be hard pressed to find any of the near-18,000 in the building that left unsatisfied.

That is part of the magic of the Caitlin Clark show. Despite the immense pressure and attention on her, she steps into the spotlight each night and always delivers. She’s scored 30+ in 12 of her last 16 games, including each of the last six, and hasn’t scored fewer than 21 in a game this season (and that was in just 26 minutes of action against FGCU). There is a remarkable consistency to Clark and Iowa’s performance, with the real variable being whether the opponent can step up to match that level. A lot of nights that’s too big of an ask over four quarters, but when a team does like Maryland did on Saturday, it is a recipe for a sensational atmosphere.

I haven’t seen something like that atmosphere for a road game since Stephen Curry broke out early in his NBA career. There’s such a unique mixture of people they bring to the arena. You have families flocking in because kids are obsessed with them, diehards hoping their team can be the one to take them down, and folks who might not go to another game all year wanting to see what all the fuss is about and being enraptured by it all. Their presence makes a game a destination event, but the only way that can be sustained is if they deliver every night in every town.

Clark does that, and if her show is coming to a city near you, I can’t recommend it enough.