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Clark & the Hawkeyes

It was a bit early for Halloween, but as I flicked by the channels, remote in hand, I thought my eyes must have been deceiving me. Amid a Sunday full of NFL football, soccer, motor cross, drag racing, tennis, cornhole, pickle ball, and even a rodeo available on the TV screen, the Big Ten channel featured a women’s basketball game played outdoors.

Intrigued, I soon learned the event was an exhibition college basketball game between the University of Iowa and DePaul University taking place before 55,646 fans at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium. The brainchild of Iowa coach Lisa Bluder, the game labeled “Crossover at Kinnick” established a record attendance for a women’s basketball game, nearly doubling the previous record crowd of 29,619 set by Connecticut and Oklahoma in the 2002 NCAA championship game at San Antonio’s Alamodome.

Bluder’s idea for the game was hatched when 9,000 fans showed up for a campus celebration when her team returned home from their appearance in last April’s NCAA championship game against LSU.

“It was a dream,” Bluder explained to the media. “You know, you can have an idea, and it could fall flat if nobody shows up. But man, Hawkeye fans showed up today. It really was a dream. It was fabulous.”

The outcome of the exhibition game (Iowa winning 94-72) was but a footnote to the growing popularity of women’s collegiate basketball, particularly at Iowa during the four-year run of sensational senior point guard Caitlin Clark. Season tickets for all the Hawkeyes home games for the upcoming season have been sold out.

“Fifty-five thousand? That’s pretty incredible,” was Clark’s reaction. “It’s hard to imagine yourself playing basketball in front of 55,000. We were pretty excited coming out of the tunnel before the game being able to play in a game like this.”

The game was played under partly cloudy skies, with the temperatures in the 50s and a gusty wind swirling around the north end zone of the stadium where the court was set up. The wind played havoc with some of the shots. Iowa shot 36-73 from the field but just 6-22 in 3-pointers and 16 of 30 in free throws. Included in those misses was a Clark air-balled foul shot.

“It was a little windy,” Clark admitted. “The cold was perfectly fine. It was a bit chilly, and I’m glad we play an indoor sport. I promise I’ll never air-ball a free throw again. The wind took that one, for sure.”

Women’s basketball across the country has come a long way and has a rich history in Iowa.

“We’ve had basketball in Iowa since the 1920’s,” Bluder added. “Girls played six-on-six high school basketball with the rules allowing three offensive players, three defensive players, only two dribbles, and none allowed to cross halfcourt. The first state tournament was held in 1920 and became a huge event when it later was televised statewide and in neighboring states until the five-player games took over in the 1980s.”

“Before the game, I just talked to the team about this being a historic day for us. We had great weather. It was raining all week, and then great weather today. I’m so thankful.”

While Iowa has a storied past for women’s basketball, the impetus behind 55,000 showing up for an October exhibition game is a testament to the influence Clark has had on the women’s game since the now 21-year-old first donned a Hawkeyes unform.

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Clark was a high school All-American and among the top recruits in the nation. A three-time college All-American, she led the NCAA Division I in scoring as a freshman. As a sophomore, she became the first women’s player to lead the nation in points and assists in a single season. As a junior last season, she led Iowa to its first national championship game, leading Division I in assists and setting Big Ten single-season records in points and assists.

Clark’s accomplishments and popularity are evident wherever Iowa plays. Television ratings have soared for Iowa’s games. A record 9.9 million viewers tuned in for the season’s NCAA championship game against LSU, shattering the previous record of 8.1 million set in 1992.

This season, Iowa will appear on various television broadcasts 23 times. Four of those games will be on NBC or Fox. Another five games will be on FSI, seven more on BTN, with other games to be streamed on Peacock.

Interested local fans wanting to see Clark & the Hawkeyes play will have to travel. This season, Penn State will visit Iowa on February 8. The Hawkeyes will play at Rutgers on January 5 and at Maryland on February 3.

Locally, Friday night marks the final regular season games for high school football, with the playoffs to begin next week. High school basketball practice will soon follow. Make plans to get out and see the area talent in person, and if you get a chance, take the time to catch Clark & the Hawkeyes on TV. It will be worth your time.