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Local products detail firsthand look at the Caitlin Clark show

04/05/2024, 10:30am EDT
By Andrew Robinson

By Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)

Kaitlyn Flanagan felt the roar rising around her.

The Holy Cross sophomore jogged to center court at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena with arguably the biggest star in college sports approaching from the opposite side to share a pregame fist-bump during introductions. As the capacity crowd got louder with each step, Flanagan knew it wasn’t for her but she was going to enjoy the moment anyway.

As the Caitlin Clark show has become a national phenomenon, it’s hard not to be impressed even lining up opposite the Iowa superstar and her team.

“They called my name and I heard our little cheer squad and then they called her name and just, the roar that comes from that stadium is crazy,” Flanagan said. “That was cool in of itself and this was my first time not just watching her on film, we’re face-to-face and it was just a really cool moment right before the game.”

Plymouth Whitemarsh product and Holy Cross sophomore Kaitlyn Flanagan, left, inbounds the ball while guarded by Iowa's Caitlin Clark. (Photo: Rob Branning/Holy Cross Athletics)

The teams that line up against the Hawkeyes – save for a few notable instances – have been looked at as footnotes, a bump in the road the unstoppable scoring machine has to get over.

For the players on those teams Clark exists as an enigma, an opponent they have to regard differently than any other while not losing sight that she, like them, is a basketball player who did the work to earn a spot on a Division I stage.

A number of CoBL area alums faced that challenge this season. Aside from Flanagan (Plymouth Whitemarsh) and Hannah Griffin (Gwynedd Mercy Academy) at Holy Cross, the Northwestern trio of Casey Harter (Souderton), Paige Mott (Abington Friends School) and Maggie Pina (Academy of Notre Dame), Fairleigh Dickinson's Bella Toomey (Penn Charter) and DePaul’s Maeve McErlane (Academy of Notre Dame) all got to share a court with Clark and the Hawkeyes.

Flanagan got to absorb the Caitlin Clark experience in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The No. 1 seed Hawkeyes, in the penultimate home game of Clark’s tenure, downed the No. 16 seed Crusaders 91-65 on March 23.

Harter, Pina and Mott ran into Clark on Jan. 31 in the thick of Big Ten play. Iowa rumbled over Northwestern 110-74 in the two teams’ lone meeting of the season, which was played in Evanston.

Toomey got Iowa in her college debut, scoring seven points and grabbing six rebounds -- though Clark had 28 points and 10 dimes in a 102-46 win.

McErlane might have had the most unique experience matching up against Clark and the Hawkeyes. The sophomore guard and the Blue Demons faced Iowa in an exhibition game on Oct. 15, the Hawkeys winning 94-72 in front of a record 55,646 fans in an outdoor game played at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.

The Academy of Notre Dame grad, who estimated her last competitive outdoor game came back in eighth grade, knew it was a once in a lifetime experience.

“The most people I’d ever played against was at UConn when that gym was filled but you go to Kinnick Stadium and we were playing for something bigger than basketball which meant a lot more to me than just breaking a record,” McErlane said. “We got to do the iconic wave to the children’s hospital, that’s a feeling I’ll never forget.

“On the basketball side, being able to in front of 55,000 people to break the record and playing against Caitlin and Iowa, having a chance to play against a generational player in Caitlin is something I’ll never take for granted.”

Notre Dame product and DePaul guard Maeve McErlane defends Caitlin Clark during a game this season. (Photo: Courtesy DePaul Athletics)

Watching Clark play is a spectacle. The 6-foot guard takes and makes threes from the logo regularly, she throws passes that don’t even look like the lane exists until she makes it, she’s scored more points than any other player in the history of college basketball and has legions of fans following her every move.

She has, at most, two games left in her record setting career starting with Friday night’s Final Four clash against UConn and Paige Bueckers at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Clark, who has declared for the WNBA Draft, is the consensus top pick but wants to cap her college career with the national title she’s yet to win.

A few days off Clark’s captivating 41-point effort in a win over LSU, avenging a loss in last year’s national final, Flanagan, Harter and McErlane shared the experience of preparing for and playing against the All-American.

“When she’s coming at you pushing the ball down the court, it’s terrifying,” Harter said. “She is pushing the ball down the court, you have to backpedal to keep up with her but she’s also just going to pull up. I’ve never played against a player who could just dribble the ball up the court and you have to be concerned about them just pulling up from the logo.

“That was real. In the game, she would do that, she would push a fastbreak and pull up, it’s unguardable.”

A common denominator, aside from an Iowa win, in all three matchups was that Clark delivered as well. Against DePaul in front of that record-setting crowd, Clark tallied a triple-double of 34 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. In the win over Northwestern, the senior had 35 points, six rebounds and 10 assists and against Holy Cross, Clark registered 27 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists.

Clark, who was named the Naismith Player of the Year on Thursday, draws a crowd wherever she goes. Iowa filled half a football stadium for a preseason outdoor basketball game, Flanagan figured she’d never see a crowd like that tournament game again and even at Northwestern, the Iowa and Clark fans seemed to multiply as the game went on.

“We were supposed to have a ‘blackout,’ but they wore their black jerseys and the entire gym was in black, so it felt like it was all Iowa fans,” Harter said. “I don’t care about that, that shows how high-profile she is and she brought all those fans into our gym, it was crazy but I loved it.

“It was so different. We kept it a game at halftime, which was huge and even if most of the fans in the gym were Iowa fans, we were all playing with a different energy.”

Flanagan and the Crusaders were one of just two women’s basketball teams other than Iowa to win a game at Carver-Hawkeye (Kansas State downed Iowa 65-58 on Nov. 16) this season, defeating UT-Martin 72-45 in the First Four on March 21. As the PW alum was dishing out assists in a scorching Crusaders effort to set up the date with the Hawkeyes, ESPN’s cameras caught Clark and a few teammates taking in the game from the stands.

The crowd that night wasn’t on the same level as the one a few days later and Flanagan said she and her fellow Crusaders definitely noticed the Hawkeyes in the stands. Come Saturday, with a 1/16 first round game getting national billing on ABC, Flanagan was locking herself in mentally.

“Even in warmups, you’re out there watching her and she’s hitting these long range shots and it’s something we’d tried to prepare so I told myself ‘I’m as ready for this as I can be,’” Flanagan said. “The biggest thing going against a player like that is to not just watch like you do when you’re watching her on TV. We had moments where she’d hit a big shot and you tell yourself, ‘OK, she’s going to do that.’ 

“Even when you play good defense, she’ll still hit a shot and you think ‘alright, there’s nothing you can do about that.’”

McErlane not only played against Clark, she got to watch the Hawkeyes star in person too. During her freshman year at DePaul, the Blue Demons had a closed-door scrimmage with Iowa and while the guard was at the tail end of recovery from a knee injury in her senior year of high school, McErlane had her eyes glued to Clark before the Iowa guard’s breakout season.

The logo threes and seeing-eye dimes almost radiate through a TV screen but it was a different aspect of Clark’s game that stood out to McErlane both times. It’s something she doesn’t think Clark gets enough credit for but is a major component of what puts her on a different level.

“I don’t think her motor is talked about enough,” McErlane said. “To be able to shoot the percentages that she shoots and put up the amount of points, assists and rebounds, you have to be in tip-top shape and that girl, she never stops moving.

“She’s very hard to guard and what makes her hard to guard is that she is not going to stop moving. She’ll facilitate for herself, she’s going to pass the ball, she’s going to cut and pop back out off a screen. People don’t talk about that enough and I think that’s something very, very special about her.”

At Souderton, Harter’s forte was defense. It’s also what helped the freshman play her way into Northwestern’s starting lineup for 16 games, including that Jan. 31 clash in Evanston. At 5-foot-11 with a wide wingspan, Harter’s got the build and smarts to be a stopper but matching up with Clark was a wholly new endeavor.

Harter didn’t open up defending Clark, but with Iowa always looking to push and the natural flow of screens and switches, their paths crossed quite a bit. The Souderton alum, an all-state selection last year, said it was an unfamiliar feeling extending so far out to guard an opposing player.

“It’s kind of what you have to do,” Harter said. “Really, all you can do is try to deny her the ball because once she gets the ball, she’s either going to make a great pass or a great shot. You have to do everything you can not to let her get the ball.”

Flanagan, who has started every game of her college career so far, was the starting point guard on a 34-0 state champion Colonials team her senior year of high school. She’s got an incredibly high IQ and feel for the game and it was her experience that Clark’s greatest wasn’t limited to just one or two aspects. 

“The biggest thing for me when we played in person as opposed to watching it, obviously you know she has crazy range but I didn’t realize how much that impacts the way she’s able to accomplish other things because of the fact you have to pick her up basically right over half court,” Flanagan said. “That was the biggest thing I realized, how much her range opens up all the other parts of her game.”

Souderton product and Northwestern guard Casey Harter guards Clark. (Photo courtesy Northwestern Athletics)

On top of playing for good high school programs locally, Flanagan, McErlane and Harter all played at the top level in travel with the Comets on the GUAA circuit. McErlane and Flanagan were teammates while Harter was a year behind, all playing on strong rosters that benefited from the strengths of each teammate.

While Clark draws a lot of headlines, a lot of attention and mobs of fans, she’s got some pretty good teammates at Iowa too. It’s the players around her, like Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin, that prevent opponents from allocating all their resources to Clark, which all three locals that faced her emphatically agreed.

“They have a really solid group around her that is, honestly, really underrated because of the way they let her do her,” Flanagan said. “At the same time, she’s drawing two or three defenders and they’re hitting open shots. That’s the biggest thing for them, it’s why she’s getting all these assists on top of the points she’s putting up because she has such a great group around her.”

Playing Iowa in October, well before the Hawkeyes were a finished product, McErlane still recognized how influential Clark’s teammates were in the overall product. The DePaul sophomore called Martin one of the toughest players she’s ever played against and lauded Marshall’s defensive efforts.

“What’s really fun to watch with their team and you see it when you play against them, they all have a role they excel at,” McErlane said. “No one tries to do something that’s out of their game and that’s what makes them so successful. Their transition ability is so special, yes, Caitlin can throw the ball in transition but you also see Kate Martin and Gabbie, all of them pushing the ball as well.

“When we were going into the game, we looked at it as yes, this is Caitlin but there’s also four other girls on the court we have to stop. Caitlin’s going to get hers, that’s just how good she is, it’s a matter of trying to hold everyone else.”

The Clark effect isn’t just contained to the court. Flanagan, McErlane and Harter all said they had a ton of texts, messages, Instagram posts and more following their games against Iowa. 

So, they must have gotten similar levels of activity after their other games.

“No, honestly,” Harter said. “To go from watching almost all of her games like everybody else to actually preparing and having a scouting report on her was crazy.”

Basketball is a two-way game and while Clark had plenty of moments in their games, Flanagan, Harter and McErlane were able to get a couple back on the Iowa star. McErlane said she didn’t really pick up on it until re-watching the game but she made a few shots over Clark’s defense.

Harter, who had Clark open up defending her, was able to sink an early shot over the Hawkeyes guard. The Northwestern freshman also caught a bit of Clark’s notorious competitiveness, the Iowa senior trying her best to convince an official the ball had deflected off Harter’s leg and not hers, which Harter found amusing.

“I have pictures, I have videos, my parents were all over everything,” Harter said. “She started the game guarding me which was cool, even though it’s because she was probably guarding the worst person on the floor but I’ll take it, she was still guarding me.”

Flanagan had quite the score, taking Clark into the post and deploying a counter move on the block and leaving the nation’s player of the year in a blender for a layup.

“I don’t know if I realized she was the one on me until I turned around and saw her there but it was just a counter I’ve been trying to work on,” Flanagan said. “In a game like that, you have to take shots. Our coach was telling us if you have an open shot you have to take it, so that’s all that was going through my mind at that point.”

Harter, Flanagan and McErlane have all been watching the tournament and they were all eager to watch the Final Four, which starts with undefeated South Carolina facing NC State at 7 p.m. with UConn and Iowa to follow. McErlane has not only played against Clark, she’s gone up against UConn as well in the Big East and the DePaul sophomore also had plenty of praise for the Huskies star in Bueckers.

McErlane explained Bueckers plays a different style of game, but added the UConn senior has the same relentless motor as Clark and Bueckers’ smarts and efficiency are no less challenging to match up with.

At a press event Thursday, Clark talked about hoping her team’s legacy would be the joy the Hawkeyes brought to their fans. With the senior guard off the pros next year, the landscape of women’s college basketball will change.

Harter recalled coming back on the floor at Welsh-Ryan Arena after her game with Iowa to find her parents and seeing a large crowd of fans waiting for a chance to see or get an autograph from Clark. The Northwestern guard certainly noticed the young girls in that crowd, saying they had come to a game just to see Clark, with a few of them even giving her words of encouragement or asking for a photo.

“The impact she’s made is unreal. You’ve never heard people talking about women’s sports like this, now everyone is talking about it,” Harter said. “It’s changed so much within the last year because of her and it’s pretty amazing and pretty wild she was able to do that. I’m really excited for the future of women’s basketball, it’s going to be viewed more the way it is right now.”

Iowa’s duel with LSU drew an average of 12.3 million viewers on Monday night, the following UConn-USC match eclipsed 10 million at its peak. There’s a chance those numbers are met, if not eclipsed on Friday and on Sunday for the national title game, set for 3 p.m. on ABC.

“It’s something most people don’t get to experience in their lifetime and it’s just realizing I’m living out the college basketball dream,” Flanagan said. “The team that beat us went to the Final Four, that’s crazy enough. With the Final Four we have, these four teams are insane, I think everyone’s hoping for good games.”

McErlane said Clark “set the tone for what all other women’s basketball programs can bring and will bring” and that the Iowa superstar has encouraged a new generation to fall in love with the game. The sport has proliferated, games are being televised more and more - this year, there was even griping on social media about certain games being exclusive to streaming services, an honor usually reserved for football in the fall - and with players like USC freshman JuJu Watkins coming into the college ranks, the window is wide open for its growth to continue.

Clark’s records, as many of them as she has, may someday fall but if they do, her name will assuredly come up in the pursuit of them. Whenever Caitlin Clark’s name gets brought up in the coming years, a select few will always be able to say they shared a court with her.

“Caitlin has taught me a certain competitive edge that you need to have in order to play,” McErlane said. “I know she’s not much older than me but she has inspired so many people and I’m grateful to have gotten the opportunity to play against her. I’m going to continue to speak on the experience I had but also women’s basketball in general to help grow the game and help appreciate it for what it really is.”

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