Iowa’s Clark shows love for the fans after they cheer her on one last time at Carver-Hawkeye Arena

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrates with teammates after a second-round college basketball game against West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 25, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 64-54. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrates with teammates after a second-round college basketball game against West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 25, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 64-54. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Caitlin Clark raised her arms as she walked across the court, pumped her fists and made a heart with her hands as she bid farewell to her legion of adoring fans who came to see her play one last time at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Monday night.

The clock had just hit zeroes on No. 1 seed Iowa’s hard-earned 64-54 win over No. 8 West Virginia in the women’s NCAA Tournament, and she wanted to thank the fans.

“I’m forever grateful,” she said.

The Hawkeyes will head to Albany, New York, to continue their bid to reach the championship game for a second straight year. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Clark will be remembered as the most beloved, if not the greatest, athlete to come out of the state that also produced Dan Gable, Bob Feller and Nile Kinnick.

“I’m very grateful that I got to play in an environment that supports women’s athletics the way that they do, not only women’s basketball — and to be honest, they’ve been doing this before I ever stepped on campus,” Clark said. “Maybe it wasn’t quite at the magnitude it is now, but these people and these fans have showed up, and they’ll continue to show up.”

The NCAA Division I all-time scoring leader had 32 points on a night nothing came easily for her or her teammates. The Mountaineers’ physical defense tried to knock her off her game, and for stretches it succeeded. She had to have blood wiped off her leg in the fourth quarter.

Among those in attendance were Basketball Hall of Fame member Nancy Lieberman, known as “Lady Magic,” and San Francisco 49ers star tight end George Kittle, who played for the Hawkeyes from 2013-16.

Clark’s parents were in the stands, as always. Brent, her dad, was a weekend social media fixture for his visible displeasure with his daughter for letting her frustration show when her shot wouldn’t fall or she didn’t get calls against Holy Cross on Saturday. He had a look of concern Monday whenever he was shown on ESPN’s telecast, even when Iowa was pulling away. Anne, her mom, smiled as she stood with her hands clasped.

And, like at every home game, fans of all ages showed up in their No. 22 jerseys and T-shirts and many brought signs paying homage to the Iowa star.

“I try not to look in the stands the best I can,” Clark said. “I don’t know, my family has always been there for me through the ups and downs of my journey. More than anything, they just look at me and motivate me, and that’s a sign of reassurance.”

Clark’s first regular-season game at Carver-Hawkeye was in November 2020. She scored 27 points in a 96-81 win over Northern Iowa. COVID-19 restrictions limited attendance to family and media members. More numerous were those cardboard cutouts of fans, including one of Clark’s golden retriever, Bella.

The crowds showed up en masse as Clark’s career continued to rise. Every home game sold out this year.

Carver-Hawkeye is where she broke Kelsey Plum’s Division I women’s all-time scoring record with a career-high 49 against Michigan. It’s where she passed the late Pete Maravich of LSU as the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division I. She scored 35 against Ohio State that afternoon. It’s where she made a couple late free throws Monday to set the Division I single-season scoring record.

She’ll head to Albany for Saturday’s Sweet 16 game against fifth-seeded Colorado with 1,113 points this season and 3,830 points in her 135 career games.

“You don’t want to get emotional, you don’t want to get emotional,” she said. “I wish I could have stayed on the court a little longer.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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