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Feb 6, 2024 11:06 pm

Caitlin Clark closes in on scoring record, drawing crowds and detractors

caitlin clark

Iowa’s win over Maryland this past Saturday was historic on several levels.

Behind 38 points and a season-best 12 assists from superstar guard Caitlin Clark, the Hawkeyes won in College Park, Md., for the first time since the 1992-93 season by a score of 93-85. It was also the first time since 2016 that Maryland’s women’s basketball team hosted a sellout crowd, as nearly 18,000 fans packed into the Xfinity Center.

Even more folks watched from home. The game drew 1.578 million viewers on Fox, making it the most-viewed women’s basketball game ever on the network. And while Fox carried a traditional broadcast, it also had a TikTok feed that followed Clark for the entire game.

“This game felt like March,” Terps coach Brenda Frese said. “Just super proud of this group and how we competed with the No. 3 team in the country with the best player in the country.”

Clark’s presence certainly commands huge audiences. According to Iowa, 30 of its 32 regular-season games have either sold out or broken an attendance record.

Now Clark, the reigning national player of the year who leads the country in scoring, is just 66 points shy of breaking Kelsey Plum’s all-time scoring record (3,527 career points) for Division I women’s basketball.

“The coolest thing is just the names I get to be around,” Clark said after she reached No. 2 all-time on the scoring list last Wednesday. “Those are people that I grew up watching, especially Kelsey Plum, Brittney Griner, Kelsey Mitchell. Those are really, really great players.”

It’s unclear if Plum was one of the millions that tuned in to watch Clark play on Saturday night. She was with Team USA for a camp in New York as the group prepares for the 2024 Summer Olympic games. But the former University of Washington guard is rooting for Clark to break her record.

“I’m very excited for her. I know it’s approaching quickly. To be honest, I’m actually very grateful to pass that baton on,” Plum said. “It was very much a low point in my life — I felt like a lot of pressure and identity was kind of caught up in that record.

“I hope everyone in the media takes time to understand that that is not just a basketball player, but a young woman that has feelings and emotions. She carries it with grace, but there’s a lot to handle there.”

Scrutiny is not new for Clark, but as she inches closer toward the record, some have tried to diminish her accomplishments. Among her recent detractors is three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes.

On a podcast hosted by former NBA player Gilbert Arenas, the Basketball Hall of Famer questioned the legitimacy of Clark breaking the scoring record. Swoopes backed her takes up by stating that Clark was 25 years old, playing in her fifth season due to COVID-19 and takes 40 shots per game.

“So, is it truly a broken record? I don’t know. I don’t think so,” Swoopes said. “But yeah, that’ll go in the record books. … And I don’t think it should be.”

The problem for Swoopes is that everything she said was factually incorrect.

Clark is 22, the typical age of a college senior. This is her fourth year playing college basketball and she’s played 16 games fewer than Plum. And Clark averages 19.7 field-goal attempts per game for her career — for context, Swoopes averaged 24.9 in her career at Texas Tech.

Clark is also just 205 points short of the all-time Division I men’s scoring record that Pete Maravich set in three seasons at LSU, long before there was a 3-point line. If Clark’s scoring average of 32.4 points per game continues, she could reach Maravich’s mark in about seven games.

But aside from winning, not much else seems to be on Clark’s mind — not the records and certainly not the haters.

“I take it in, everywhere I go,” Clark said. “I think I’m just very grateful, and obviously it’s changed my life … People spend a lot of time, money and resources to come see us play. Whenever I step on the court, I just want to have a lot of fun and I’ve been able to find a lot of joy and calmness in that. I don’t get nervous for these games, honestly. It is what it is. It’s basketball.”

Iowa’s next two games are Thursday at home against Penn State and Sunday on the road at Nebraska, the latter of which is another nationally televised game on Fox. It’s part of a packed women’s basketball slate on Sunday leading into that evening’s Super Bowl that also includes No. 11 UConn vs. No. 1 South Carolina on ESPN, No. 15 Louisville vs. No. 23 Syracuse on the CW and Duke vs. North Carolina on the ACC Network.

“That’s the state of women’s basketball right now,” Tar Heels coach Courtney Banghart told Field Level Media. “There’s a story to be told, you know? The last game Caitlin Clark played, there were two cameras — one on Caitlin Clark and one on the game. That’s women’s basketball right now. It’s awesome.”

Undoubtedly, Iowa’s game against Nebraska will draw a big rating if Clark breaks or comes close to the scoring record. Banghart and others hope that Clark’s draw will be contagious for the sport.

–Mitchell Northam, Field Level Media

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