A lifelong dream: Caitlin Clark pushes Iowa women’s basketball to first Final Four in 30 years

Clark committed to Iowa with a dream of getting the Hawkeyes to the Final Four. Three years later, she’s achieved it.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark holds up the Seattle Regional 4 trophy after a 2023 NCAA Elite Eight women’s basketball game between No.2 Iowa and No.5 Louisville at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, WA, on Sunday, March 26, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cardinals, 97-83.

Chloe Peterson, Sports Editor

SEATTLE — When Iowa women’s basketball junior Caitlin Clark achieved her dream of making the NCAA Tournament Final Four, the first thing she did was find the game ball.

Then, she threw it to her dad and told him to get out of the arena as soon as possible.

“I did want the game ball, so I chucked it to my dad,” Clark said. “ I hope they got out of the arena in time, so the NCAA can’t chase ’em down. But I told ’em to run. I’ll get it later at the hotel.”

Clark willed the Hawkeyes to a victory over fifth-seeded Louisville on Sunday night at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, notching the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA Tournament history — men’s or women’s. The National Player of the Year candidate notched 41 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists in the 97-83 victory.

The Elite Eight game ball was a culmination of years of work for Clark, head coach Lisa Bluder, and the rest of the Hawkeye women’s basketball program.

And it all started when Bluder recruited Clark to come to Iowa City.

“I love to play this game,” Clark said. “I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a little girl. I’ve always wanted to take a team to the Final Four and be in these moments and have confetti fall down on me.”

When deciding on her college team, Clark had offers from storied programs like Notre Dame, Duke, and Oregon. Her final three came down to Notre Dame, Iowa, and Iowa State. At the time, the Irish were a powerhouse team that had appeared in the national championship game in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015, and won the title in 2018. 

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder hugs Caitlin Clark during a 2023 NCAA Elite Eight women’s basketball game between No.2 Iowa and No.5 Louisville at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, WA on Sunday, March 25, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cardinals, 97-83. (Daniel McGregor-Huyer)

No matter what team she played for, Clark’s dream was always to get to the Final Four. And Bluder promised her it could happen. 

Now, Bluder says, it’s destiny.

“But I’m so happy for Caitlin. I can remember sitting in her living room and her saying, ‘I want to go to a Final Four.’” Bluder said. “And I’m saying, ‘We can do it together.’ And she believed me. And so I’m very thankful for that.”

Before Sunday night, the Hawkeye women’s basketball program hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament Final Four since 1993, when head coach C. Vivian Stringer was at the helm.

After Bluder successfully recruited Clark to the Hawkeyes, they had to convince the rest of the program that they could break the 30-year drought.

“A lot of people told me it would never happen when I came to the University of Iowa,” Clark said. “But [Bluder] believed in me, and that was really all that mattered. And we made our locker room believe. And when you dream and work really hard, a lot of really cool things can happen.”

For some of Clark’s teammates, just her accolades gave them hope to eventually make it to the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Clark came to Iowa as the fourth overall recruit in the class of 2020 — the highest-ranked recruit in program history.

“When Caitlin first got here, you’ve got to know you can have a chance to get to the Final Four,” senior forward McKenna Warnock said. “She’s amazing. With having someone like that on our team and then having coach Bluder as an amazing coach, I think that there was always a way, and I’m glad that we found a way, and I’m glad that it was this year.”

But for the holdouts, Bluder thinks the 2021 NCAA Tournament bubble was the catalyst. 

Iowa got to the Sweet 16 in Clark’s first year as a Hawkeye in 2020-21 — a season defined by COVID-19 restrictions. The Hawkeyes were in a bubble throughout the two-week tournament in San Antonio, Texas, only leaving their hotel rooms for practice and games.

While UConn took down Iowa in the third game of the tournament, the Hawkeyes came out of Texas with renewed energy.

“That bubble really brought us together,” Bluder said. “I mean, you’re living in a hotel in a bubble for two weeks together. And that actually really I think brought us together even more. But then last year was such a disappointment to us because I think we really could have done some special things last year. But just being able to rewind and do it again this year, it’s amazing. It’s just really special.”

Now, the Hawkeyes are coming full circle. They’re returning to Texas with not only a focus on the NCAA Tournament, but on the Final Four.

“I’m so thankful for every single person, not just the starting five,” fifth-year senior center Monika Czinano said. “Everybody on our team deserves this. Everybody puts in the work.”

Iowa will play the winner of top-seeded South Carolina and second-seeded Maryland in the Final Four in Dallas, Texas, on Friday.