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Iowa's Clark vs. UConn's Bueckers headlines Final Four action on TSN

Caitlin Clark Paige Bueckers Iowa UConn Caitlin Clark Paige Bueckers - Getty Images

CLEVELAND (AP) — Their memories are blurry.

Of AAU tournaments and Team USA practices. Of gold medals and deep 3s. Of the girl with the brown ponytail with the unlimited range who always seemed to know what was coming next and the blonde who never got rattled with the ball in her hands, by opponents or the sea of eyes constantly transfixed on her.

Yet ask Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and UConn’s Paige Bueckers their earliest impression of the other and you get generalities, light on details if heavy on respect.

Watch coverage of the women's Final Four LIVE tonight on TSN, starting with NC State vs. South Carolina at 7pm ET/4pm PT., with UConn vs. Iowa to follow at 9pm ET/6pm PT.

Maybe because those years shadowing each other on the travel circuit across the Midwest or teaming up for the occasional international competition seem so long ago. Maybe because in some ways — in the most meaningful of ways — they are.

The NCAA Tournament that Clark grew up watching in Iowa and Bueckers took in from the outskirts of Minneapolis doesn’t exist anymore. Back then, the inequalities between the men’s and women’s versions of March Madness were massive, from facilities to swag to TV ratings, even the branding.

It’s not that way anymore.

Not with Clark and Iowa selling out everywhere they go. Not with Bueckers finally healthy after spending the better part of two years recovering from knee injuries that left her fearful the generational skills that made her the first freshman to win the AP Player of the Year award would never return.

Only they have. Just in time for the two players who have helped propel interest in the women’s tournament to an all-time high to take center stage.

When Clark and the top-seeded Hawkeyes face Bueckers and third-seeded UConn on Friday night in the Final Four, they’ll do it not in some anonymous gym with nothing but parents, scouts and college coaches watching.

They will play in front of a packed arena with millions watching on television and millions more keeping track on social media, an ever-growing group that includes LeBron James and Steph Curry and Luka Doncic and aspiring ballers from all over.

It’s not that women’s basketball hasn’t had stars before. It has. Just never quite as many as this who play quite like this.

And while Iowa coach Lisa Bluder made it a point on Thursday to say she didn’t want the national semifinal to be pitted as “Caitlin vs. Paige,” everyone else involved seems to be OK with the arrangement because of what it means for not just their respective teams, but the women’s game in general.

“It’s a star-driven society that we live in,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s a celebrity-driven, star-driven, influencer-driven world that’s been created.”

One in which both Clark and Bueckers are comfortable traveling, perhaps because it’s the only world they’ve ever known.


The parallels to the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird that began when Johnson and Michigan State faced Bird and Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA championship are obvious.

“All of a sudden those two particular players came on and it just lit everything up, and it just took off from there,” Auriemma said. “So it needs some stars. It needs people that have the right personality, the right game. And we have that now.”

Thing is, Bueckers and Clark don’t view themselves as rivals. Not in a traditional sense. If anything, they believe they’re simply riding the crest of a wave that’s been building for years, long before they reached a first-name-only level of fame.

Ask Clark why interest in women’s basketball has spiked and she doesn’t point to her record-setting career or her “did she really shoot that” range or even her team’s success but simple exposure.

To Clark, the women’s game has always been great. It’s just taken a while, a long while, for the world to catch up.

“It’s the platforms that (we’re able to have now) that should have been there for a really long time,” Clark said. “We’ve had some amazing talents come through our game, over the last 10, 20 years.”

Talents that haven’t quite connected in the way that Clark and Bueckers have connected. The easing of rules surrounding name, image and likeness compensation has allowed them to market themselves and their game in ways once unimaginable.


It’s a history not lost on either of them. They understand and embrace the responsibility of being a role model, knowing they were once on the other end, looking up to the likes of college and WNBA stars Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen.

“They were everything that I wanted to be like,” Bueckers said. “And they won.”

A trait that has followed Bueckers seemingly from the first time she picked up a ball. It’s telling that when asked about Bueckers’ game, Clark didn’t talk about her impeccable court vision or precise midrange jumper but what the scoreboard says after nearly every game in which she plays.

“She’s always been dominant,” Clark said. “Every team that she’s ever been on, she’s led them to great success. It’s just what she does. She’s a winner.”

That hasn’t changed, though the dynamics around the way Clark and Bueckers are perceived have flipped over the last three years.


It was Bueckers, not Clark, who was the top recruit in the Class of 2020. It was Bueckers, not Clark, who was recruited by the Huskies, though Auriemma did point out this week “if Caitlin really wanted to come to UConn, she would have called me.” It was Bueckers, not Clark, who won that first meeting in 2021 and became the “media darling,” as Bueckers put it Friday.

Clark is in that position now. Setting the NCAA Division I scoring record and playing with a fearlessness that is equal parts thrilling and accessible will do that.

Security people had to clear a path deep inside Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Friday to make sure she could make it from one media opportunity to the next. When UConn and Bueckers came through an hour later, the throng was half the size.

Even for a player who says on the court she can see things before they happen, it’s been a lot. The 22-year-old Clark welcomes the attention because she understands it has brought new people to her sport. Yet she’s not here to be The Star, as much as people want to thrust that moniker on her.

Three years ago, it was Bueckers. The last two years, it’s been her. Next spring it might be Bueckers during her redshirt senior season. Bueckers is leaning toward this year’s blockbuster freshman class, a group that includes USC’s JuJu Watkins or Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo. A decade from now, it might be some young woman who didn’t pick up a ball until she watched Clark hoist it from deep and Bueckers weave through traffic in the lane.

In that way, Clark doesn’t see herself or Bueckers as the end result of something, but simply the latest links in a chain growing ever stronger with each passing season.

“It doesn’t need to be one end-all, be-all (star) just like I think there doesn’t need to be one end-all, be-all team,” Clark said. “The young talent, it’s only going to get better.”