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The Caitlin Clark Show Rolls On

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The Caitlin Clark Show Rolls On

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One way to view the meteoric growth of women’s college basketball is through the career arc of its current protagonist: Caitlin Clark, the University of Iowa’s stone-cold mad bomber.

Her first college game came in an eerily quiet setting: no fans, players spaced out on bleachers and some wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus. Eventually that season, the atmosphere livened up with cardboard cutouts in the seats.

Her last game will come this weekend in an altogether different environment: a packed-to-the-rafters arena in Cleveland that will roar with her every touch, untold millions tuning in on television and Clark as a million-dollar pitch woman starring in national commercials.

Clark’s chase for the only real achievement that has eluded her — a national championship — continued Monday night. It did so in poetic fashion, at the expense of the antagonist who has ridden shotgun with her across a national stage for the last year: Louisiana State’s Angel Reese, her unapologetic, trash-talking nemesis.

The early rematch of last year’s national championship game ended fittingly, with the ball in Clark’s hands as she dribbled out the final seconds of Iowa’s 94-87 regional final victory over L.S.U. that was covered, as usual, in her fingerprints.

If Clark exceeded her own standards — with 41 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds — so, too, did the game, which was free of jawing, dismissive gestures and score settling.

It was just basketball.

When it was over, Clark was embraced in the handshake line by Reese, who had a succinct message for Clark after losing to her for the first time in five meetings.

“Go win it,” Reese said.

The sequel, for all its punches and counterpunches, Iowa’s long-distance bombs and L.S.U.’s relentless rebounding, is unlikely to have the lingering impact of the original.

Last year’s title game drew a record 9.9 million viewers, but it was also on network television for the first time since 1995. And the suggestion that this matchup will do for women’s basketball what Larry Bird and Magic Johnson playing for the N.C.A.A. championship in 1979 did for the men’s game is predicated on Clark and Reese becoming superstars in the W.N.B.A., which is hardly assured.

But they brought familiar contrasts to the stage: strength vs, finesse, inside vs. outside, sharp-tongued vs. prosaic, and, of course, Black vs. white.

The most enduring gift of their two-act performance may be that, perhaps for the first time, the leading characters are not the outsize coaching figures — Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Tara VanDerveer and Dawn Staley — but the players themselves.

“There wasn’t a lot of the back-and-forth-between-the-players kind of juice,” Rebecca Lobo, the former Connecticut star turned broadcaster, said of her school’s decades-long rivalry with Tennessee. “And there wasn’t all the stuff around the game.”

She said of Iowa and L.S.U.: “If you want to love either team, you can find plenty of reasons to love them. If you want to hate either team, you can find plenty of reasons for that too.”

Signs of what the sport has become were omnipresent over the last four days in Albany: boisterous crowds, booming television audiences and big, sometimes polarizing personalities that are taking the sport to new places — some of them uncomfortable.

At times, the taut drama on the court was subsumed by the spectacle off it.

Coach Kim Mulkey of L.S.U., a week after threatening a lawsuit against The Washington Post for a since-published profile of her, called out a Los Angeles Times column as sexist and racist.

Hannah Hidalgo, Notre Dame’s star freshman, missed four minutes of her team’s narrow loss to Oregon State while officials made her remove a nose ring, creating another stir.

And Reese riled up the U.C.L.A. coach, Cori Close, after taunting the Bruins’ bench when she fouled out in the final seconds of L.S.U.’s comeback win — the latest example of Reese’s behavior raising questions about the line between sportsmanship and showmanship.

“It bothered me,” said Close, who unsuccessfully pleaded for a technical foul. “Everybody saw it but the officials. She’s a great player and has done a lot for the game. I’m never going to criticize another player. I’ll just say we want to be an example of how you handle yourself when you win and when you lose.”

Reese offered no apology.

“It’s just a super competitive game,” Reese said on Sunday ahead of the rematch with Iowa. “I just wish people would realize that. Once I get between those lines, there’s no friends.”

She added: “I’ll take the villain role. I’ll take the hit for it. But I know we’re growing women’s basketball. If this is the way we’re going to do it, then this is the way we’re going to do it. You either like it or you don’t.”

On Monday night, her teammates Flau’jae Johnson and Hailey Van Lith spoke passionately and tearfully about their star.

“The crown she wears is heavy,” Johnson said.

So much of what happened over the weekend entered the terrain of gender — as happened again Sunday night with echoes of a familiar battle for women’s basketball: the belated discovery that the 3-point lines at the other regional site in Portland, Ore., were at different distances.

“Well, I hate to say this, but I have a lot of colleagues that would say, ‘Only in women’s basketball,’” said Vic Schaefer, the Texas coach, referring to the longstanding inequities between men’s and women’s basketball, which were laid bare in a video of the spartan women’s weight room at the 2021 N.C.A.A. tournament.

The reaction to that video spurred outrage and eventual action by the N.C.A.A. to address some of the systemic inequalities.

And much as Clark, with her spectacular shotmaking, has redefined the boundaries for how women can play the game, Reese has forced a re-examination of the standards to which Black athletes and women are held.

“I don’t fit in a box that y’all want me to be in,” she said after last year’s championship game. “I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. But when other people do it, y’all say nothing.”

Her point that night was that her trash-talking and taunting — directed at Clark — were no different than Clark’s at the end of a regional final victory over Louisville. Or in last year’s semifinal, when, with the wave of her hand, she dared the South Carolina point guard Raven Johnson to shoot.

Johnson took that gesture personally, along with the social media criticism that followed that defeat — South Carolina’s only loss of last season.

“I want to cry because every time I talk about it, it hits me so hard,” Johnson said Friday after burying a late 3-pointer to stave off Indiana. “I’m showing people that you can’t sag off me this year.”

Over the weekend, as they have in the last year, Clark and Reese did little but shower each other with admiration — for their games and their competitiveness.

What Clark seemed reluctant to do was engage in any discussion of how race influences the conversation around her and Reese.

“I think people celebrate us the same,” Clark said. “I think people absolutely love Angel; I think people absolutely love me. And that’s how it should be.”

On Monday night, Clark allowed herself one chest thump, after she sank the last of her nine 3-pointers to put Iowa ahead by 11 midway through the final quarter. Her coach, Lisa Bluder, was pleased by her composure.

“Really, it could have been a highly emotional game,” Bluder said. “It could have been a lot of talking going on out there from what happened at the end of last year. Honestly, she put it aside.”

Perhaps Clark’s neatest trick, with the help of Reese, was relegating top-ranked South Carolina, which grinded out wins over Indiana and Oregon State to quietly reach its fourth consecutive Final Four, to the undercard.

When Staley, their coach, was asked why the Gamecocks — who are 36-0 with an entirely new starting lineup and are 107-3 over the last three seasons — haven’t gotten more attention, she laughed.

“I don’t know, but I like it,” she said. “Go ahead, take the spotlight. Put it somewhere else.”

She is likely to get her wish. On Friday in Cleveland, South Carolina plays its cross-border neighbor, North Carolina State, in the first game of the night. The main event will be reserved for Iowa and Connecticut and its star, Paige Bueckers.

“Hopefully, at the end of the day, next week this time,” Staley said Sunday. “I’m hoping that we give a lot of people a lot to talk about.”

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