On cusp of record, Caitlin Clark trying to soak up each moment

Jackie Stiles did everything to avoid hearing or reading about herself. For Kelsey Plum, it became more like a millstone than a milestone. But Caitlin Clark? The Iowa senior smiles, shrugs and says she really hasn’t been nervous.

The NCAA women’s basketball scoring record might soon change hands for the third time in 23 years. Clark is 39 points from passing Plum, the former Washington Huskies standout who is No. 1 on the list at 3,527. Before Plum, Missouri State‘s Stiles held the mark of 3,393 points from 2001 to 2017.

While the record pursuit at times got heavy for Stiles and Plum, Clark is trying to soak up every moment.

“I don’t feel that much pressure,” she said after Iowa’s 111-93 victory over Penn State on Thursday in Iowa City. “I feel like, at this point, it’s like ‘when’ it’s going to happen, rather than me chasing it down.

“My main focus is just on winning, having fun, enjoying these environments because it’s so special. I’ve been able to find a lot of calmness and peace in that, and it wasn’t always that way in my career. Early on, I would get nervous for these types of games. I feel like my maturity has just grown a lot.”

Thursday’s game was the rare occasion when Clark wasn’t Iowa’s leading scorer; sophomore Hannah Stuelke had a career-high 47 points, while Clark scored 27 with 15 assists. But Clark enjoyed Stuelke getting the spotlight. Clark is the focus of giddy fans everywhere the Hawkeyes go, but their chemistry is airtight.

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder credits Clark for perpetuating it.

“She earns every [bit] of respect by the way that she performs, the way that she practices … she doesn’t act like a prima donna,” Bluder said. “I wish everybody could see behind the scenes how she is. Everybody on our team respects her and admires the way she treats them.”

Like Stiles and Plum, Clark is a sharpshooting guard. And they are linked in another way: Stiles recruited both Plum and Clark during her coaching career. When she watched Plum play as a high schooler, Stiles thought even then that Plum would surpass her record in college. Now, Stiles is watching as Clark closes in on Plum.

“There’s so much I love about Caitlin’s game,” Stiles told ESPN. “Every time she has the ball in her hands, you’re in anticipation of what’s going to happen, because it’s just electric.”

Those who watched Stiles — who played 1997-2001 at Missouri State, then known as Southwest Missouri State — would say the same about her. Stiles’ single-game high in college was 56 points. She scored 1,062 points as a senior, when she led the Lady Bears to the 2001 Final Four in St. Louis.

In Stiles’ senior year, she broke the NCAA scoring mark before a full house at Missouri State in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Mississippi Valley State’s Patricia Hoskins, who had held the NCAA mark since 1989, was flown in for the game as a surprise for Stiles.

Stiles said that, during the record chase, she tried not to read the newspaper or listen to local radio or television stations. It caused her too much stress. She didn’t have a cellphone, and it was still the days before social media.

Plum broke the record in a far different era of technology. As a junior, Plum led the Huskies to the 2016 Final Four, then scored 1,109 points as a senior. She broke Stiles’ record in Washington’s last regular-season game of 2017 with a career-high 57-point performance.

Plum, a two-time WNBA champion with the Las Vegas Aces and an Olympic gold medalist, hasn’t talked much of late about the record, saying she prefers the focus to stay on Clark because it’s her moment. But Plum has said that for as big an accomplishment as it was, she didn’t really enjoy it.

“I remember, to be honest, [the record] was very much a low point in my life,” Plum said on a recent USA Basketball media call. “It felt like a lot of pressure, and my identity was kind of caught up in that record.

“I hope everyone in the media takes time to understand that [Clark] is not just a basketball player but a young woman that has feelings and emotions. She carries it with grace, but there’s a lot to handle there. If anything, make sure that we show her love outside of her performance.”

Plum was the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2017, but it took her a few seasons to become fully comfortable as an elite scorer as a pro. During this past WNBA season, she referred to herself as a former “ball hog” and said she had to learn to take better shots and be more of a playmaker for others.

But Washington had no chance to reach the Final Four without her scoring as much as she did. It was the same for Stiles in 2001 and for Clark in 2023.

As for what goes into being such an elite scorer, Stiles talked about the practice, how much she watched her idol Michael Jordan, the drills she did, visualization, her competitiveness.

“I would have mantras, things I would tell myself even if I never said them out loud to anyone else,” said Stiles, who’s no longer coaching and is now a personal trainer. “One time I was kind of struggling, and I said to myself, ‘You know you’re the best player on the court. It doesn’t matter what they do. Nobody can stop you.'”

Stiles said Clark’s signature extra-long 3-point shots are doing more than just creating great spacing for the Hawkeyes and giving them adrenaline boosts.

“Her deep range, where people think, ‘Wow, that’s gutsy shooting from there,’ you have to realize that might be the cleanest look she’s going to get with the defense she faces,” Stiles said. “I love that she has no fear. She has such a quick release. And when the game is on the line, she’s at her best. You know, she’s going to make something happen.”

There’s more for Clark to aim for if she passes Plum: The AIAW large-school women’s record, set just before the NCAA era by Kansas’ Lynette Woodard from 1977 to 1981, is 3,649 points. And LSU’s Pete Maravich holds the overall NCAA college basketball mark at 3,667.

Clark’s face never fails to light up when her name is mentioned with basketball’s greats. She appreciates sports history and has spoken of how kind one of her idols, UConn and Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore, was to her when Clark approached her as a child.

“Ten seconds can go a long way in somebody’s life … how you treat somebody is very important in life,” Clark said. “You can make a long list of players that came before me and were able to grow the game and pave the way for us and break down barriers. Now we’re having these opportunities and we’re going to do the same for younger generations.”

Stiles wants Clark to know how much others are enjoying watching her do it.

“When somebody is so dominant at their craft, it’s inspiring,” Stiles said. “People like to see greatness, and I’m honored I get to witness it, too. I celebrated Kelsey’s success, and now I’m celebrating Caitlin’s. And who knows what we’ll see from the players growing up now who want to be like them.”

First appeared on www.espn.com

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