The next chapter in the great sports duels begins on Saturday.
Caitlin Clark of Iowa leads the nation in scoring with 26.8 points per game. Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers, a freshman like Clark, became one of the most recognizable faces in the sport by leading a young team to a 26-1 season.
Yet despite all the excitement surrounding the two players, Clark will be comparatively low profile when No. 5 Iowa takes on No. 1 Connecticut on Saturday in the round of 16 of the women’s basketball tournament in Los Angeles. the NCAA.
The Hawkeyes feel like they’ve been overlooked and play with a chip on the shoulder. Clark, for example, was not a finalist for the John R. Wooden award for best player of the year, even though she was the first freshman to lead the country in scoring since Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell in 2014-15. She was on the All-America second team squad.
Bueckers was included in the first team. She averages 19.9 points per game, 6 assists, 4.7 rebounds and plays over 35 minutes per game, drawing comparisons to former Huskies greats like Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.
Clark doesn’t see any of that as a slight. He has enjoyed watching Bueckers grow up and said facing her is a yardstick for his own game.
“It’s a great competition and that’s what I love, I love playing against the best,” he said. “She is a tremendous player.”
Saturday will be the first time they face each other at the college level. It is the beginning of what promises to be a memorable rivalry.
“She plays with such passion and joy and that’s who I am,” Clark said of Bueckers. “I like to see people who love to play basketball, that even you can say that they love being there.”
They both have a long history on the court. They played against each other in high school in AAU tournaments and were teammates on the USA Basketball U19 team in 2019.
Clark says he sees Bueckers play often. He likely has a better perception of Bueckers than any other opposing player, and the same is true of Bueckers’ knowledge of Clark.
Both players go on a streak on Saturday. Clark’s 35-point performance against Kentucky to lead the Hawkeyes to their second straight round of 16 is tied with Jordan Nixon of Texas A&M for the highest point total in a single game in the tournament.
Bueckers has similarly dominated, breaking a UConn record with 24 points on his tournament debut. The Huskies have been understaffed, with Geno Auriemma, their Hall of Fame coach, out of the first two games due to Covid-19 protocols and freshman guard Nika Muhl injured in the opening game against High Point. . Auriemma arrived in Texas on Wednesday.
The young team, led by Bueckers, has responded.
“We play team basketball, we get a lot of assists for that,” Bueckers told The New York Times in January. “Most of the points I get come from my teammates’ screens, so I give them all the credit for making it happen. We really take things one game at a time and we don’t let the pressure get to us. “
Clark emphasized that Saturday’s game is not about Clark against Bueckers, but about Iowa against UConn. But as Clark goes, so do the Hawkeyes. Shoot 47.7 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from 3-point range. She alone outscored Kentucky in the first half, 24-22, on Tuesday, helping the Hawkeyes defeat a No. 4 seed. The game wasn’t close at first, and that was all Clark.
Like Bueckers, Clark is quick to give in to his teammates, and he has good teammates. Monika Czinano is averaging 19.4 points per game and Gabbie Marshall is shooting 45.7 percent from three.
“We always say that all we need is each other every time we step on the floor,” Clark said.
Inevitably, the way Clark performs against UConn, ranked No. 1 in the nation at times this season, will help determine how he ranks not just against Bueckers, but as a superstar in the game. Part of his legacy will be written on Saturday.
“We’re playing each other, but it’s still Iowa vs. UConn,” Clark said. “It will come down to who is the best team, not who is better, me or her.”